Fighting Secrecy Over Transgenic Crops, Greenpeace Carves a Circle

MARMANDE, France, July 27, 2006 - Early this morning a group of Greenpeace activists entered a field of genetically engineered maize, or corn, in southern France and carved a giant "crop circle" with an "X" in the field.

The action, taken to mark the field as a contamination zone, was in response to a ruling by a French court yesterday. The court ordered Greenpeace France to remove from its website maps showing the location of commercial fields of genetically engineered (GE) maize in France.

"As we are now forbidden to publish these maps of GE maize on our webpage, we have gone into the fields and marked it for real," said Arnaud Apoteker of Greenpeace France. circle

A crop circle X marks location of commercial GE maize fields in France. French courts want the locations kept secret. (Photo by Pierre Gleizes courtesy Greenpeace)
The field in Grezet Cavagnan that the activists marked today is one of the two biotech maize fields highlighted on the censored webpage.

The other maize field on the forbidden map is on highway A64 just south of the city of Toulouse, also in southern France.

Although the map showing the French genetically engineered maize fields has been removed from the website of Greenpeace France it is now available at: www.greenpeace.org

The map will also be distributed via email so that it will be available to millions of people around the world.

"We will continue to show where GE maize is grown, until the French government fulfils its responsibility and publishes an official register of GE fields that is accessible to every citizen," Apoteker said.

The EU legislation (Directive 2001/18) that deals with genetically engineered organisms shows how EU member states are obliged to maintain public registers in order to inform their citizens about the locations of genetically engineered fields.

But the French government has yet to make the EU's directive into national law. Greenpeace contends that by withholding information about the location of gene-altered crops, France is depriving its citizens of information they need to protect themselves against the risk of genetically engineered contamination of conventional and organic food.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has been ruled guilty of "maladministration" after hiding documents from Friends of the Earth Europe that reveal scientific concerns about the safety of genetically modified foods. The Commission falsely used the premise that World Trade Organization (WTO) disputes should involve the secrecy levels of court cases.

The official ruling was announced by the European Ombudsman July 17. The documents concerned related to the European Communities dispute at the WTO, in which the United States, Argentina and Canada claimed that Europe's precautionary approach on genetically engineered foods was a barrier to trade.

borer

Some maize varieties are engineered to resist insects such as the European corn borer. (Photo by Keith Weller courtesy USDA)
Adrian Bebb, transgenic foods campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said, "Genetically modified foods are a sensitive issue in Europe - most people are totally against them. Keeping papers that discuss their safety secret is a disservice to the public."

The European Commission initially refused to release papers to Friends of the Earth Europe in August 2004, citing that the dispute in the WTO had to be "assimilated" to court proceedings and that the publication of the papers would have damaged their case. The Ombudsman rejected this argument as "not well founded, and hence amounted to an instance of maladministration."

Friends of the Earth Europe argued that the WTO is not a court as disputes are ruled by trade experts not judges. Unlike a court, a WTO dispute is agreed by all 148 member countries and parties can comment on the draft final ruling.

The European Commission eventually released the documents in question to Friends of the Earth Europe in February 2005.

The papers outlined scientific concerns about the long term safety of transgenic foods and crops. Further papers, also released to Friends of the Earth Europe earlier this year, outlined these concerns in more detail, warning that cancer and allergies caused by eating genetically engineered foods cannot be ruled out and recommending that these crops should not be grown until their long-term effects are known.

The WTO has issued a final verdict in the US/European Communities dispute over genetically modified foods but it has not yet been made public.

An earlier draft leaked to Friends of the Earth Europe, showed that the WTO was critical of the method used by European countries to ban transgenic foods but ruled against most of the US's arguments.

Critics of biotech crops argue that genetic engineering uses material from organisms that have never been part of the human food supply to change the fundamental nature foods. Without long-term testing no one knows if these foods are safe.

Genetic engineering can produce unforeseen and unknown allergens in foods, critics believe. Some scientists and many activists are now seeking better ways of identifying allergens in gene-altered foods that could affect millions of people.

"By publishing secret locations of fields of genetically engineered maize, Greenpeace is defending the right to know and say no to the environmental and health risks associated with GE Organisms," said Geert Ritsema of Greenpeace International.

Ritsema

Geert Ritsema campaigned against transgenic foods in Germany when he was working with Friends of the Earth Europe. September 2004. (Photo courtesy Face it! )
Geert Ritsema, GMO campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, said, "The European Commission's proposals are a recipe for disaster. They will lead to the widespread contamination of Europe's food, farming and environment and take away consumers ability to avoid GM. European member states must step in where the Commission has failed and ban these GM seeds."

"By publishing secret locations of fields of GE maize, Greenpeace is defending the right to know and say 'no' to the environmental and health risks associated with GE Organisms," said Geert Ritsema of Greenpeace International.

"It is absurd that the French legal system has prevented Greenpeace France from providing vital information to the public, which according to EU legislation should have been published years ago by the French government," said Ritsema.

Internationally, Ritsema says Greenpeace will continue to expose the locations of genetically engineered fields.

Greenpeace says that today's action marks the beginning of a global campaign to inform the public about the risks of genetically engineered maize cultivation for the environment and to human health.

The locations of German biotech fields are published on government websites, but France is not the only EU country where the locations of genetically engineered crops is secret.

In Spain, the government has so far refused to publish the locations of genetically engineered fields. The consequences of this policy are detailed in an April 2006 Greenpeace report, "Impossible Coexistence." The report shows that in nearly 20 percent of the investigated cases, neighboring conventional and organic maize fields in Spain are contaminated by genetically engineered organisms, without the knowlege of farmers and consumers.

The report concludes that the "co-existence" of genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops is not possible.

While the European Union has a legal system for contol, tracing and labeling genetically engineered crops, the Greenpeace report claims the system does not work. "The control and monitoring of GMOs from laboratory to plate is ineffective, and in many cases non-existent," the report states. "The system for segregation, traceability and labelling does not work"

Greenpeace says the organization advocates crop and food production free of genetically modified organisms that is "grounded in the principles of sustainability, protection of biodiversity and providing all people to have access to safe and nutritious food."

"Genetic engineering is an unnecessary and unwanted technology that contaminates the environment, threatens biodiversity and poses unacceptable risks to health," says Greenpeace.

Greenpeace and other critics say that the influence of a genetically engineered organism on the food chain may damage the local ecology. The new organism may compete successfully with wild relatives, causing unforeseen changes in the environment.

Once genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment, critics point out, it is not possible to contain or recall them, and whatever effects they have are irreversible.