France puts the brakes on GM cultivation

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm, Genetically modified food, Maize, European union

France is putting in a place a moriatum on the commercial
cultivation of genetically-modified crops pending a review of the
sector, a decision that means no new crops can be planted until
country's biotech position will be clear.

The decision comes as part of a package of measures intended to make France greener, which was announced by President Sarkozy last week. A new expert group on the subject is to be set up in the coming weeks and the government is holding a four-month public forum on what France's environmental policy on GM should be, which is likely to be fiercely fought. One the one hand, the anti-GM lobby in France is powerful, with some media friendly faces like farmer-activist Jose Bove at the forefront. But on the other, some of the most advanced biotech research in Europe is taking place at French research institutes such as CIRAD. Moreover, seed producers and grain processors are said to have reacted with outrage to suggestions that GM cultivation in France be banned outright. France's position is expected to be clear in early 2008. This would mean that, in real terms, last week's decision does not make a difference to seed planting, since planting takes place in the spring. Following the decision, Monsanto has said it is "deeply disappointed"​ by Sarkozy's speech. It claims GM technology can actually help France reach its environmental goals of reducing pesticide use and economising on water. Bove has said that he does not object to research into GM, as long as it happens behind closed laboratory doors. Indeed, Sarkozy has stressed that last week's decision does not mean a halt to research. One of the main concerns is that pollination of GM crops could cross-contaminate non-GM crops grown in the vicinity - and that ultimately the long-term health effects of GM on humans are not known. Indeed, a working group has suggested that co-existence of the two kinds of crops be more strictly regulated, and that ultimate responsibility for controlling their crops and preventing cross pollination should rest with the farmers. At the moment, the only GM maize approved for cultivation in France is Monsanto's MON810, which was approved by the EU in 1998. It is recommended that the distance between GM and non-GM crops should be twice that required for coexistence of conventional crops - that is, 50 metres. Moreover, although the growers' association AGPM says that in the natural environment maize does not cross-pollinate with any other plant, information should be given to all maize growers whose crops may be near plots of GM maize. The association also drew attention to the implementation of a best practice guide for coexistence and traceability of GM and non-GM corn in 2004, and compliance with the prescribed limit of 0.9 per cent. Greenpeace claimed in 2005 the European Commission gave the green light to Monsanto's MON810 maize into the EU seed catalogue, without a comprehensive monitoring plan, since the plan provided was under the old EU directive that considered only the possibility of resistance to Bt-toxin in corn borer populations. Updated directive (2001/18/EC) was said to be more thorough. In March the Official Journal of the EU published a number of orders on the commercial production of GM crops, and the provisions of EU directive 2001/18 have been transcribed into French law. The BCC has reported that figures to be published today will show that the area planted with GM crops in Europe has expanded by 77 per cent since last year. It says that over 1,000 square km of GM maize was harvested this year. Indeed, the AGPM said in March that interest in Mon 810 has been piqued by a corn borer epidemic across France in the last few years. The first big leap in land devoted to cultivation of MON810 between 2005 and 2006 - from 500 to 5200 hectares. And last year, as in 2005, 15 growers wishing to grow the crop took part in an introductory programme Programme d'Accompagnement de Cultures Issues des Biotechnologies. ​In June, EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson delivered a strong exhortation to the EU to take a lead in shaping global rules on GM trade - particularly in defending objective science as a benchmark - or suffer the economic consequences. He called biotechnology "the coal face of applied science in the 21st​ century",​ and warned that if the EU does not work through the issues raised by GM food, just as the rest of the global market is doing, it will not be working it its own best interests. The fear, he said, is that if the EU falls behind in approving safe biotechnology, it would open itself up to economic risks. According to Reuters, EU Commission has indicated France's case may not stand up in court if it ultimately decides to banned GM crops that are allowed by Brussels.

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