France invokes EU clause to ban GM crop; head of scientific panel compares transgenic crop to asbestos

Last week was a long and turbulent one for GM crops here in France. First a scientific panel appointed by the government to evaulate the risks of GM crops ruled that there were “serious doubts” on the product, opening the way for President Nicolas Sarkozy to invoke an EU safeguard clause which would result in a ban on the MON 810 transgenic maize. Sarkozy finally invoked the clause late on Friday, unleashing the fury of the cereal lobby, members of his own right-wing UMP Party, internal dissenters from inside the scientific panel, and of course Monsanto, the U.S. agribusiness giant which sells the transgenic crop.

Among those who welcomed Sarkozy’s decision was José Bové, an anti-globalization activist who was able to end a hunger strike he had launched on January 3 along with 15 other anti-GMO protestors. The Provisional High Authority on GM Organisms – a panel of experts from a wide range of fields assembled in the wake of last October’s Grenelle on the Environment – said Wednesday it had “serious doubts” over the safety of MON 810, a strain of maize which has been engineered to produce a naturally-occurring toxin, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that kills a pest called the corn borer.

Under European Union laws, a member state can invoke a safeguard clause, enabling it to bar a GM crop that has otherwise been given EU-wide authorisation, provided it has scientific evidence to back this decision. Six other EU members have already invoked this clause.Chairman of the panel, Jean-Francois Le Grand, announced that evidence had emerged that MON 810 – the only transgenic crop authorized in France – had an effect on non-targetted insects, a species of earthworm and micro-organisms. Furthermore, targetted insects can evolve over the years and become resistant to the BT toxin spliced into the corn, a phenomenon which has already been observed with pesticides in non-GM crops. There was also concern that wind-borne pollen from Mon 810 could travel much further than previously thought, perhaps more than a hundred kilometres.

Asked what his personal position on GM crops was, Le Grand told Le Parisien, “I have serious doubts on MON 810. I am told that Americans have consumed them for the past 10 years and are not ill, but no epidemiological study has been conducted in North America.” He added: “I think that we are in a situation right now which is comparable to that of asbestos when the first warnings were issued. Since then there have been deaths and we are taking out asbestos everywhere. Do we have to wait for the risks to be confirmed before we can take stock of the damage? I feel that the state of knowledge on GM crops is insufficient, so we should not take risks, but on the contrary take precautions.” In a surprise twist, 12 of the 15 scientists who compiled the authority’s report issued a statement Thursday complaining that Le Grand had misrepresented their findings, saying their intial report had not used the words “serious doubts”. They also complained they had not been allowed time to carry out a “fuller expertise” of Mon 810.

In addition to scientists, members of the 35-member panel were drawn from a broad range of fields including law, economics, sociology and agronomy. The main cereal lobby, the FNSEA, has cried foul, accusing the government of using the ban on GM crops for political gain, particularly in view of the upcoming municipal elections. Monsanto, for its part, evoked a “doubt on the credibility of the process” which produced the final conclusions. It added that the study “adds nothing new to the considerable body of already established scientific proof”. 

In the meantime, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo announced that the new legislation on GM crops would be delayed to the spring from an earlier plan to push it through in February.

via Le Monde, Les Echos, Le Parisien

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