MILAN -- The discovery of an undeclared plantation of genetically modified crops in Italy has given a new twist to the controversy over these crops.
A routine inspection in the Piedmont region last month revealed that 400 hectares of supposedly conventional maize crop were in fact genetically modified.
Coming soon after new European Union (EU) legislation on labeling and traceability of genetically modified (GM) food and animal feed, the Piedmont case has led to demands for strict controls and for legal action against those responsible for the contamination of seeds.
The 100 or so farmers involved in the Piedmont case have said they believed they planted conventional seeds. The case is under investigation.
Notwithstanding the farmers' plea, the plantation was immediately destroyed on orders from Piedmont's governor Enzo Ghigo.
Biotechnology organizations were critical of the strong measure, but several consumer and environmental associations supported Ghigo's decision. Francesco Ferrante, director-general of the environment group Legambiente said there was no alternative because the GM plantations could contaminate adjacent traditional plantations.
Greenpeace went further. It said in a press statement that "local reports and previous experience suggest that GM varieties produced by Monsanto may be the source of the contamination." It asked for the investigation to cover "Monsanto's policy of deliberate contamination of non-GM seeds and farming." Monsanto is the U.S. firm that has become a pioneer in development of GM crops.
"If Monsanto and its sales agents such as Pioneer Seeds are allowed to continually contaminate normal non-GM seeds, then that will make absolute nonsense of the new legislation because it will entirely deny any choice for farmers or for consumers," says Greenpeace spokesperson Federica Ferrario.
The European Parliament voted to end a five-year ban on GM food last month, but adopted the world's toughest rules on labeling and traceability of such foods.
The United States and some biotechnology multinationals had recently contested the EU's long ban on GM foods. They filed a suit with the World Trade Organization to lift the ban. Under the new rules, GM foods can only be sold in Europe if they are clearly labeled.
All foods with more than 0.9 percent modified content will require labeling. The legislation covers ingredients, some foods not previously considered such as highly refined maize oil produced from GM-maize, and animal feed. Dealers will be required to maintain strict records all along the commercial chain.
But the new rules do not cover protection for adjacent conventional crops from GM plantations. Each EU member state will be allowed--but not obliged--to take independent measures against contamination.
Europe's Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne says the new legislation will let consumers choose whether they want GM foods or not. But neither the U.S. nor the GM industry is satisfied. The Bush administration argues the labeling requirement presents an unfair trade barrier to biotech imports. They fear it will deter most customers from buying products labeled as GM produce.
The fears are well founded. Several surveys indicate that most people in the EU oppose genetically modified food, and that they are unlikely to buy food that carries a label like 'This is the produce of GMOs'.
This consumer trend has not gone unobserved among food producers and retailers. The British Retail Consortium, representing 90 percent of high-street shops in Britain has declared it will not deal in GM foods because "supermarkets are not going to give shelf space to something that doesn't sell."
Luigi Rossi di Montelera, president of Federalimentare, the Italian federation for the food industry, agrees that producers and retailers do not want to offer GM foods because consumers are hesitant about buying such food.
A Greenpeace survey among food companies in Germany shows that 170 out of 216 companies asked for products without GM ingredients, and only 18 said they do not want to exclude GM food.
But despite the strong resistance to GM foods from consumers and companies, environmentalists fear that dealers in GM foods will exploit the loopholes in the new rules. The greatest concern is over contamination of conventional crops by GM crops, as in the Piedmont case.
"We can't let GM crops and their multinationals take advantage of the Trojan Horse of contamination, whether accidental or deliberate," says Ferrante.
"Preventing genetic contamination should now be the number one priority for the EU," says Eric Gall, Greenpeace's EU Advisor on genetic engineering. "If nothing is done to protect conventional and organic crops from genetic contamination, the new labeling system will actually be at risk of becoming useless after a few years because it will be increasingly hard to secure GM-free supplies."