Last week, the European Commission made the decision to allow three types of genetically modified corn to enter the European Union, where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been banned in six countries (Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg), and where zero tolerance has been the rule for GMOs in imported grains. The decision seems to have come on the heels of numerous shipments of grain to be used for livestock feed being turned back in previous months because of contamination by these and other varieties.
In other words, the European authorities seem to be throwing up their hands, acknowledging the impossibility of avoiding contamination of the various types of grains being shipped around the world in containers that are never cleaned in between routes. Bryan Endres, an agriculture law professor at the University of Illinois, had this to say in an article in the New York Times on Monday:
It’s a real concern to the industry because once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in. Once these [GMO crops] are in the commodity system, it’s hard to resegregate them out.
This also confirms the concerns of anti-GMO activists, who see contamination as a major reason to keep GMOs out of the food system altogether. Contamination results when varieties cross-pollinate as well as when the seeds of GM and traditional varieties get processed together, and is difficult to avoid in a globalized food system. Such contamination might result in future generations having no choice but to eat GM food — thus the reason organic food producers have gotten together to do their own testing and labeling, in an attempt to maintain consumer trust and grow their market share.
But instead of just letting grain into Europe that is contaminated with less that one percent of these varieties, European authorities have given the go-ahead to importing shiploads of MON 88017, MON 89034 and a variety of Pioneer Hi-Bred, which are free to become feedstock or to be processed and sold to eaters in food products. Letting such a large amount of GM corn into Europe is only a small step away from seeds of the new strains getting accidentally or purposefully planted, which is currently still illegal. (MON 810 is the only corn variety legal to plant in European soil).
Jerry Mander, writes in The Fatal Harvest Reader (2002) that “biotechnology introduces a tremendous new danger: biological pollution, a hazard on scale with nuclear power. Accidental cross-pollination of biotech plants with non-biotech ones could potentially create new, uncontrollable varieties. …Unlike ordinary pollution, genetic pollution might never be stopped. It is madness to take the risk.”
A good example of just this kind of contamination came after the introduction of Starlink variety corn. Starlink had been approved for animal feed but not for human consumption due to studies that had shown the potential for allergic reactions. When it was found in taco shells in 2000, it led to a recall of over 300 corn products already on store shelves, and cost the maker, Aventis, $150 million to clean up — though some was discovered in a shipment of food aid to Bolivia in 2002. Claire Hope Cummings, in her book Uncertain Peril (2008), writes this about the biological pollution problem Starlink caused us to consider:
Starlink has taught us a lot about contamination. For one thing, it was planted on less than one half of 1 percent of all the acreage planted to corn in the United States, but it got into the entire corn supply. The reason is that our industrial food system constantly mixes grains during processing and shipping, making it impossible to keep unwanted organisms under control. Another interesting aspect of this story is that this contamination was not detected by industry or government. They have no mechanisms in place, and no motivation, to check for GMO contamination. It was found by consumer activists, who later revealed that Aventis and the seed companies that sold Starlink did not make sure that farmers took special precautions with this product that would keep it separate.
The Europeans have had a longstanding backlash against biotech food — which has come as a result of anti-imperialistic feelings against US-based biotechnology companies, a food culture that values variety and isn’t so technologically focused, and a distrust of regulators that we have not similarly manifested in the US, even in light of so many recent food safety recalls. The biotech industry meanwhile counters that the fears of the public are irrational and un-scientific; as they continue to lobby European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), make false claims about sustainability in their advertising, and let their seeds contaminate the rest of the food supply all in the name of their bottom line, not public safety.
For now, there are many other varieties of GMOs that have not been given the okay for import from the European Commission. This will continue to cause contaminated shipments to get turned around at EU ports. But this first move could be a sign of things to come, should European citizens decide not to organize against the decision. You can bet your sweet bippy that we will keep following this story as it develops.