from Sunday Herald, 29 June 2003
Food on sale in Britain labelled "GM-free" has been contaminated with genetically modified soya made by US multinational Monsanto, a new survey by the food safety watchdog reveals.
The contamination is condemned by GM critics as being part of a deliberate campaign by the American biotechnology industry, backed by the administration of President George Bush, to force feed GM food to unwilling consumers in Britain and around the world.
The latest tactic is to insist that African countries who want help in combating the Aids epidemic must accept GM food. Bush has also accused Europe of prolonging famine in Africa by encouraging opposition to GM food.
"The ploy of the US government and biotechnology industry is to force GM food onto the world market either by stealth or bullying. People should be worried that their food is contaminated," said Adrian Bebb from Friends of the Earth Europe.
In a series of checks on the labelling of GM foods for the European Commission, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has just tested a wide range of foods for the presence of GM organisms. It detected traces of GM in eight soya products, including beans, flour and protein concentrate.
In three samples - textured vegetable protein, vegetable protein mince and protein isolate - they found GM soya despite the fact that the products were labelled "GM-free". GM soya, known as "roundup ready", is made and marketed by Monsanto.
The FSA didn't say precisely which brands of which foodstuffs were contaminated by GM. But it pointed out that a wide variety of food was derived from soya, including bread, pizza bases, tofu and meat substitutes.
The levels found were all under 1% and hence within European labelling regulations, which are up for review by the European parliament this week. Nevertheless, manufacturers were warned by local authorities to improve their labelling, and one product was withdrawn.
The contamination occurs because GM crops are grown next to non-GM crops and in the processing and manufacturing it is difficult to separate them. This means that Monsanto's GM soya, one of the world's biggest GM crops, is steadily infiltrating all soya production.
But the contamination of conventional food is seen by GM opponents as just one of the weapons deployed by the GM industry to win markets for its products. Obliging developing countries to accept GM food aid is another.
The US Congress has recently passed a new law which for the first time links GM food aid with assistance in fighting HIV/Aids, the sexually transmitted disease which is killing millions across the African continent. "United States food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/Aids, particularly African countries, in order to help feed such individuals," the legislation says.
This has provoked fury among environmental groups in Africa. "The US should stop playing with hunger," said Nnimmo Bassey, director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria. "African nations should have the right to decide what their people are fed. It is immoral for the US to exploit famine and the Aids crisis in this way."
Over the past two years there have been a series of clashes between the Bush administration and African countries over the provision of GM food as aid. Zambia rejected any GM food, while Mozambique and Zimbabwe turned down GM corn grain but had to accept milled GM corn.
Bush now blames opposition in Europe for stirring up unwarranted alarm about the safety of GM products among African nations. At a biotechnology industry conference in Washington DC last week, he accused European governments of blocking the import of GM crops "based on unfounded and unscientific fears".
As a result, many African nations were afraid to use GM crops for fear that they would not get access to European markets, he argued. "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology."
The US government has lodged a formal complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about the European Union's five-year moratorium on GM food. Earlier this month, it ended negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute, and referred the matter to a WTO arbitration panel.
"Food aid is being used, particularly by the US, as a marketing tool to capture new markets. Big agribusinesses are huge beneficiaries of the current food aid system," alleged Ricardo Navarro, the Salvadorean chairman of Friends of the Earth International.
"GM crops are not the solution to hunger. If Bush wanted to tackle hunger he would be answering the real causes of hunger, like poverty, debt, lack of infrastructure that make it impossible for small farmers to compete in world markets."
His accusation is backed up by a new study of GM food in Africa by Aaron deGrassi from the University of Sussex's Institute of Development Studies. DeGrassi argued that the introduction of crops such as GM sweet potatoes, GM cotton and GM maize has not led to any major environmental or economic gains.
"There has been a great deal of excitement over these new engineered crops despite their low sustainability. The maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or agroecology based techniques," he concluded.
DeGrassi highlighted several examples in which multinational GM companies have used a handful of relatively well-off African farmers to promote GM in sceptical developed countries. He recounted how last month Monsanto flew four black pro-GM South African farmers to speak at a London conference.
He said: "Biotechnology firms have been eager to use philanthropic African projects for public relations purposes. Such public legitimacy may be needed by companies in their attempts to reduce trade restrictions, biosafety controls and monopoly regulations."
The accusations are, however, rejected by Monsanto and the other biotechnology multinationals such as Bayer, DuPont and BASF. "Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger. What we would say is that it has a part to play," argued Tony Combes, Monsanto UK's director of corporate affairs and spokesman for the UK GM industry's Agricultural Biotechnology Council.
He pointed out that nearly six million farmers in 16 countries planted GM crops in 2002, three-quarters of them in developing countries. "That's not us, the multinationals, forcing anything down anybody's throat. They've got a choice," he said.
The contamination of GM food on sale in Britain was an inevitable fact of life when GM crops were grown beside conventional crops, and was within legal limits, Combes added. "You can't have zero thresholds on anything."
Not surprisingly, the industry's arguments failed to convince the Green's environment spokesman in the Scottish parliament, Mark Ruskell. He is promoting a bill to make GM companies legally liable for any contamination they cause.
"As far as the US and the biotechnology companies are concerned the GM debate doesn't exist - you will eat it and you will grow it," he said. The UK government is currently sponsoring a debate on the future of GM foods, but it has been widely attacked as a sham with a predetermined pro-GM outcome.
"If GM is commercialised in Scotland, widespread contamination will turn consumer against farmer, and farmer against farmer. The legacy of Scottish Executive and Westminster inaction on GM will be the biggest erosion of the rights of consumers and farmers ever seen in Scotland," declared Ruskell.
"Only strict liability for the harmful effects of GM placed at the door of the GM companies will force them to confront the defects of their own technology head on."
WHERE GOVERNMENTS HAVE BANNED GM
country / details of action
European Union / de facto moratorium on GM food but now considering new GM applications
Australia / moratorium on GM crops by four states
New Zealand / 2001 law preventing the release of GM organisms and to control field testing
Peru / Illegal to import, produce or sell GM food for human or animal consumption
Mexico / suspended authorisations for large-scale commercial growing of GM corn
El Salvador / 2001 law forbids cultivation of GM seeds
Ecuador / 2001 ban on GM food aid
Mozambique / rejected GM grain from US
Zimbabwe / rejected GM grain from US
Zambia / doesn't want any GM food aid
WHERE GOVERNMENTS LOVE GM
United States / biggest producer and consumer of GM food
Argentina / the second-largest grower of GM crops
Canada / 3.5 million hectares of GM crops
China / 2.1 million hectares of GM crops
South Africa / grows GM cotton
Britain / conducting GM debate but expected to give go-ahead to commercial crops