Commission in a 'sticky situation' over GM honey
by Alyn Smith
The European Commission's reputation for neutrality and impartiality is at risk following rulings on GM honey and battery hen cages
A judgement by the European Court of Justice on contaminated pollen in honey has thrust the issue of genetically modified plant technology very much back on to the agenda in Brussels. Last month's ruling stated that honey containing traces of pollen from the genetically modified crop MON 810 cannot be sold on the market, as this maize - while authorised for cultivation itself - has not been specifically authorised as honey. The case concerns German beekeepers, whose honey was contaminated by pollen from GM maize during field trials by Monsanto. The case has implications of the most profound kind, not only for the future of the beekeeping industry; not only on the potential takeover of agriculture by GM crops; but for the very sanctity and impartiality of European law.
Let us be clear - for a number of reasons, I am fundamentally opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. First, consumers have made it plain time and time again that they don't want the products on their supermarket shelves. Second, the potential of GM crops is one of the most over-hyped corporate propaganda campaigns in existence today. Study after study shows that GM crops do not lead to improved yields compared to conventional crops. And commercial GM crops only really exist for soy, maize and cotton. What GM crops do is trap farmers into crippling intellectual property agreements, high seed prices with no possibility to save seed and dependence on related products produced by the same multinational agri-business - such as pesticides.
Most importantly, the notion of providing farmers and consumers with "choice" by cultivating GM is simply an untruth. For, GM crops contaminate neighbouring conventional crops with astonishing ease. A field study in Japan showed that contamination for maize could occur at distances of more than a kilometre. Most member states do not have proper co-existence legislation and the laws that exist are easily violated. Therefore, given due time, farmers and consumers will find that they have no "choice" at all - GM will have spread through the whole food chain.
The European Commission's role is to be the impartial upholder of supranational law and the neutral arbitrator between the Council and Parliament. We have not seen this in the case of GM. First, they proposed a "dirty deal" by which member states could control decision making on whether to authorise cultivation of GM crops on their territory, in exchange for quicker authorisations of new GM varieties at EU level. They were rumbled and the law is stuck in the council. Second, under the guise of reducing feed costs, they authorised the import of feed shipments with a low level presence of unauthorised GM material - a low level, but enough to contaminate conventional crops.
Thrown into disarray by the unexpected court judgement, the commission's next step is unclear. According to Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli, speaking at the Agriculture Committee last week, he is considering providing "fast track retrospective authorisation" for MON 810 for use in honey - in the hope that the problem and the issue of compensating the European beekeeping industry for mass contamination of their product, will go away. This is moral hazard on a gigantic scale. The commission would be sending out a strong message - not just to the biotech industry, but to all multinational corporations: obeying the law is for little people only. If you break the law by contaminating conventional crops, not only will you not be punished - through a lack of polluter pays liability laws - but you will in fact be rewarded through the authorisation of your GM variety for a new purpose without having to go through the standard authorisation procedure.
This cannot be allowed to happen. We are seeing a similarly concerning development with the upcoming abolition of battery hen cages and the fact that the commission refuses to set a tough line on enforcement of the law - despite the fact that several member states will not be in compliance on January 1, 2012. There is also no answer from the commission on what to do with the 80 million illegal eggs produced on January 2. Again, a message is sent: if you have the daring and audacity to ignore the law, your punishment will be late and little - if at all. The commission is treading on very thin ice. Its reputation for neutrality and impartiality is hard won and vital for the continued success of the European project. It would be foolish to throw it all away for a jar of magic beans.
Alyn Smith MEP is a member of the Scottish National Party