A bill which lays down the terms under which GM crops can be cultivated in France and creates a body to oversee its use is making its way painfully through the French legislature. This bill has generated a lot of fuss in parliament and the media. What is it all about? The bill seeks to align France’s legislation on the issue with a 2001 European Union directive, and in time for France to take over the rotating EU presidency this summer. That directive compels Member States to create a legal framework for GMO open-field cultivation – notably to legislate on the distances that must be maintained from non-GMO crops and the responsibilities when contamination does occur. The bill – which was conceived in the spirit of the Grenelle on the Environment and in the respect of the precautionary principle – came before parliament on April 1, after adoption in the Senate, where it was considerably watered down. For instance, the original provision for a High Authority on GMOs has been morphed into a High Council on Biotechnology where scientists and civil society are separated into two groups.
Senator Jean-Francois Legrand, who was the former head of the Provisional High Authority on the GMOs created shortly after the Grenelle, has pointed out that the pro-OGM lobbies have been working the corridors of parliament intensely of late. Referring to the conclusions of the IAASTD report that GMOs were not a solution for development, he said: “When I cited these sources, I saw the incredulity and the surprise. No-one was familiar with this international expertise.”
Who are the main actors in this drama? The European Commission, (executive arm of the European Union) which despite fierce opposition among Member States to GMO cultivation, is continuing its authorizations at a fast clip. In March, Brussels gave the green light to imports of Sygenta‘s GA21 corn, which means that this transgenic corn may be imported into the Union’s 27 countries, but not cultivated. (NB: Syngenta share price: Up 35% in the past year). The same rule currently applies to transgenic colza, soya, carnations, chicory and tobacco. Then there are the politicians in France – with the ruling right-wing UMP party deeply divided on the issue and the opposition left staunchly opposed. Finally, there is civil society, which is overwhelmingly against GMOs.
How to account for the big gap between public opinion in France and the pro-GMO stance of the European Commission? Friends of the Earth Europe summed it up a report released last year: “It is no secret that the EU political class has embraced the neoliberal agenda. In food and farming this translates as high-technology intensive farming with patented inputs (pesticides, genetically modified seeds, etc) that generate wealth for the European industry. The basic aim, clearly stated in EU policy objectives such as the Lisbon Agenda, is to make Europe a leader in the global economy. This has been expressed in different policy slogans – the ‘Biosociety’ in the 1980s, the ‘knowledge-based economy’ in the 1990s, and the “Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy (KBBE) in the current decade.”
The report notes that the main lobby group on GM food and crops at the EU level is EuropaBio, and highlights the fact that the biotech industry is skilled at constructing myths which are pumped through the mainstream media to prop up its case. The current myths are, of course, that GM technology will save the world from climate change and global famine. The counter-argument is articulated in the IAASTD report released earlier this year, which calls for a more holistic, less productivist approach to agriculture which is less dependent on fossil fuels, and stresses that corporate control of seeds can undermine the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. In case anyone missed it, here is a video: