This is a translation from a column published May 23, 2015 by Corinne Lepage, a French politician, former Minister of the Environment and former Europe-Ecologie MEP, on the occasion of the last global March against Monsanto. I was helped in this task by Raymond Eckhart, from Skepti-Forum, who very kindly accepted to quickly checked it in order to smooth out a bit my English, as it isn’t my mother tongue. Well, some parts don’t make a lot of sense, because the author is originally quite confused herself and this is also what made it difficult for me to translate this article. For example, she talks about the Office of Cooperation and Economic Development, when it is actually the « Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development »(OECD).
In this text, she accuses the European Union and member states of failing to protect their citizen against the danger of corporate greed in general, and of GMO and herbicides in particular. A translation of my analysis of this text is now online, but I thought it would be interesting for English-speaking audience to read about how some French political environmentalists are talking about these issues at present.
This is a typical case, like the asbestos or tobacco records, where a 30-years old topic comes back on a regular basis like a long-time discussed subject, but with no concrete reality, haunting European institutions. We are being lectured about the virtues of plants supposedly capable of withstanding drought, diseases or insects. We are being told about feeding 10 billion human beings with these plants. In fact, we are being presented with patented plants whose sole advantage is to enrich those who own these patents, while incidentally creating a sanitary risk. A maize plant, depending on its characteristics, will always need the same amount of water to produce a protein. There are different breeds that need more or less water, but that is called genetic selection, not a GMO.
The solution to produce that protein, using the same amount of water, will be to eliminate from the field all the other plants that could compete with the cultivated maize for the available water. The GMO developed in response to this water issue will be either herbicide-resistant or an herbicide itself. Monsanto, with its flagship herbicide RoundUp, is the best example of this logic. And it doesn’t matter that glyphosate, the main active component of RoundUp, has been classified as probably carcinogenic by the WHO!
In order to promote GMO technology, all means are good. This is primarily a marketing battle in order to make GMOs out to be something profitable and favorable to human progress, something that will bring answers to many problems, such as pesticides, herbicides or drought, and you ideally, must aim for a humanitarian angle. This angle has been changing over time: overcoming hunger, producing nutriceuticals, reducing the use of pesticides…the therapeutic angle with the insulin-producing GMO has been constantly used. Yet, benefits from medical GMOs represent less than 1% of the total sales. But it still being put forth by the industry.
Despite all this, when opposition emerges in one country, producers and the governments backing them up, with the USA in their lead, don’t hesitate to present the authorities with a fait accompli. This was the case when boatloads of American soya arrived in European ports with an undetermined amount of GMOs on board. When the European Union decided to implement a well-crafted directive on GMOs in 2001, there was an immediate reaction, and by 2003, a new regulation was put in place to correct legal elements some industrial actors deemed excessively restrictive. Their intense lobbying led to the adoption of a much weaker piece of legislation, which then became the basis for all their subsequent requests, instead of the 2001 directive.
However, the fact remains that European populations are still skeptical of or opposed to GMOs, and that the memory of the « mad cow » crisis isn’t far off. The US situation is quite different. Not that consumers don’t wish for GMO labeling like their European counterparts, but they didn’t succeed in obtaining it, except in Vermont where a referendum imposed it….but it is now being challenged in a lawsuit by Monsanto. Conversely, a class action has just been opened against Monsanto by American consumers. In the USA, liabilities are treated differently. If North America favors a system that imposes heavy sanctions in retrospect, Europeans, prefer a system that acts upstream preventively. The European Union applies two principles to the development of new technologies: first, the « risk of development », which means that if a producer cannot know the risk of his product, because the current state of scientific knowledge doesn’t allow it, he can’t be held responsible for subsequent damages when they happen; then, in order to offset the risks from that principle, another principle of research has been set up, called the « precautionary principle ». In order to address health issues and requirements from the 2001 directive concerning short-, middle- and long-term studies about direct and indirect impacts on health, GMO producers have lobbied the office of cooperation and economic development (OECD), through the US and Canadian governments, in order to obtain very low protocols which are limited to very short-term studies and rest on fallacious principles such as the dose-response relationship.
Furthermore, producers can rely on the world trade organization which works towards lowering gray barriers. Thus, in order to fight against these obstacles, the WTO adopted a formula taken straight out of North-American legislations containing two words: « science based » [in English in the original text – she then explains how this could be translated in French – NoT]. And thus, for 15 years, the EU and the USA have been stuck in a legal struggle, each using the legislation of its own institutions. Yet, we all know that the « science based » expression only serves to hide the organizing of scientific ignorance, which makes it possible to slow down legislation in matters of care, prevention and precaution. In this respect, the book by Stéphane Foucart, entitled « The lie factory » [« La fabrique du mensonge » – I don’t think this book exists in English and Stéphane Foucart is a scientific journalist at the French national newspaper Le Monde – NoT] clearly reveals the pseudo-scientific methods that have been used by the tobacco, asbestos and GMO industries in order to prevent knowledge and then keep alive a doubt that is no longer needed.
So when the EU delayed its authorization of GMOs, the US lodged a complaint with the WTO and won their case in 2006, as the organization deemed that the restrictions were not based on risk assessment as defined in the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. When German honey producers wanted to make GMO-free honey and found out that there was a contamination from Monsanto GMOs, they filed a complaint with a German court to obtain compensation. The German court found in their favor and the Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed this decision. This judgement had become extremely bothersome and a hindrance for the development of GMOs in Europe. Never mind! New legislation, pushed by the industry and supported by the liberal, the conservative and the extreme-right parties in the European Parliament, was introduced that recognized that pollen was not an ingredient of honey. Therefore, the jurisprudence became inapplicable.
For three years, the European Parliament conducted a revision of the 2001/18 directive and I was the reporter for this text. Through hard work, persuasion and listening to all stakeholders, we managed to get a text approved by an overwhelming majority ranging from the extreme-left to a large part of the European right, in order to get a re-nationalization of GMO authorization procedures, but with a very sound legal basis. Indeed, the initial text proposed by the European Commission was a trap that allowed countries to take measures to ban GMO on any but environmental and health grounds. We changed the legal basis of this text to allow a ban taking into account environmental and health criteria, which were already provided for by the 2001/18 directive, precisely not to get out of the WTO protocols and to avoid condemnation of States who decide to implement this legislation. The Council of the European Union decided to block this directive under the leadership of some member States, spearheaded by Spain – a country who had been under pressure from the US for the development of GMOs, as we remember was revealed in WikiLeaks – and the States found themselves blocked yet again by their bans.
With this directive revision blocked and the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union bypassed, the field was clear again for all authorizations that the European commission might want to issue. As a matter of communication, the European commission indicated that member states were henceforth given the possibility to ban GMOs on their territory on any except environmental and health criteria. The text that had been adopted was back to square one, that of the trap! It goes without saying that traceability doesn’t allow for control of product sales in a territory and that these rules clearly go against the internal market. The Commission now can easily claim it can’t act otherwise as the required majorities have never been achieved on any of the requests for authorizations that have been filed so far. The pressure also comes from a complaint that was lodged with the European ombudsman by the company Pioneer in November 2014 about the slow processing of their authorization request – the ECJ had already sent a serious reminder to the Commission in 2010 following a 2008 complaint from the company BASF -.
Anyhow, the door is now wide open to GMO authorizations and the alleged freedom of States to ban them is an illusion. Yet, the European Commission could have taken advantage of a recent decision which had come just in the right time to strengthen the legal framework of the EU and the WTO, as it is both grounded in the precautionary principle and « science based ». Indeed, when the WHO classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, it made it possible to reject authorization or renewal requests for glyphosate-tolerant GMOs on both principles. Then, how can we explain this decision by the Commission? It refuses to disavow the EFSA – which has already been put on notice by the European Court of Auditors for its lack of conflicts of interest management and whose final discharge wasn’t voted by MEPs for a full six months. The multiple EFSA deficiencies and the Commission’s refusal to sort it out adds up to a double dysfunction which will require exposing those responsible.
In the meantime, the grip is tightening on GMO toxicity and the refusal to replicate G. E. Séralini’s study, even to question it, shows a culpable deficiency.
Given the WHO decision, the European leaders have put their personal liability in line, but member states can lodge an appeal for annulment proceeding by the ECJ for failure to respect the European principles guaranteed by the treaties.
Beyond this battle, another one is taking place, that of the future TTIP, since one of the US objectives is precisely to annihilate the European legislation on this matter and a few others, even if we have already dangerously lowered our guard on cloned animals. The European parliament under the previous mandate had succeeded in blocking chlorinated food, meat glue and a few other « innovations », without reckoning hormone meat. Ultimately, beyond the necessary mobilization against TTIP, the main struggle is that for transparency and labeling, which will allow consumers to be a true counter-power against those unscrupulous multinationals and States failing in their major objective, that of ensuring the physical integrity and the health of their citizens.