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GMO

Has Europe Been Right All Along to Renounce GE Crops?

By Reynard Loki

Editor's note: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms—either plant- or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based—would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.

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New York Times Takes Critical Look at False Promise of GMOs

An article in Sunday's New York Times has struck a blow to the argument that genetically modified (GMO) crops will help "feed the world."

A New York Times report concluded that, compared to Western Europe, the United States and Canada have "no discernible advantage" in yields after embracing GMOs.Flickr

Investigative reporter Danny Hakim's piece argues that in the last two decades GMO crops have been a mainstay in conventional agriculture and the technology has not led to larger yields nor reduced pesticide use, despite the biotech industry's promises of both. He also notes that the fear that GMOs are unsafe to eat are "largely unsubstantiated."

Using United Nations data, Hakim compared the yields of GMO corn and sugar beets in the U.S. and Canada with their non-GMO counterparts in Europe, which is largely suspicious of GMOs and strictly regulates its cultivation.

"The United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields—food per acre—when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany," he wrote.

Hakim's conclusion, he points out, is similar to a report from the National Academy of Sciences that found GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields and should not be exclusively relied upon to meet long-term food security needs.

The widespread adoption of GMOs has also increased the use of herbicides, even though top GMO seed supplier/ Roundup maker Monsanto claims its products would "decrease the overall use of herbicides."

As per the New York Times article:

"One measure, contained in data from the United States Geological Survey, shows the stark difference in the use of pesticides. Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

"By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage—65 percent—and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent."

The article also highlighted the tragic cycle of ever-stronger herbicides to combat herbicide-resistant superweeds. For instance, 10 states have reported devastating crop damage after farmers illegally sprayed their GMO soybeans and cotton with drift-prone dicamba in order to beat back weeds that have evolved against Monsanto's flagship product, Roundup.

"The NYT has finally admitted what a number of us have been saying for 20 years," Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, told EcoWatch via email. "GMOs are designed to increase the sales of the proprietary toxic pesticides and patented seeds of Monsanto and the other gene giants, and offer nothing in the way of increased nutrition, yield, adaptation to climate change, nor reduction of pesticide and chemical inputs."

In September, Bayer CEO Werner Baumann and Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant appeared in a joint appearance of their proposed $66 billion merger which would create the world's largest seed and pesticide company.

Both chiefs echoed Big Ag's mantra that GMOs increase crop yields in an environmentally friendly way and is one solution to feed a global population that will reach 10 billion by 2050.

"We are fully committed to helping solve one of the biggest challenges of society, and that is how to feed a massively growing world population in an environmentally sustainable manner," Baumann said. "What we do is good for consumers. We help produce efficient, safe, healthy and affordable food. It is also good for our growers because they have better choices to increase yields in a sustainable way."

The New York Times report, however, makes it clear that this narrative needs much further scrutiny.

Food

Glyphosate Given Last-Minute Approval Despite Failure to Secure Majority Support

As expected, the European Commission has extended the license for glyphosate for 18 months. Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis announced the last-minute re-licensing on June 28 despite failing three times in a row to secure a majority decision from the European Union's member states.

The EU's current approval of glyphosate had been set to expire on Thursday but due to the member state gridlock, the EU's executive body had the final say on whether or not the controversial weedkiller remained on Europe's shelves. Had glyphosate's license been allowed to expire, manufacturers would have been given six months to phase out products containing the chemical, such as Monsanto's Roundup and other herbicides.

"The commission will follow our legal obligation. We know very well that we have a deadline of June 30. We will adopt an extension for glyphosate of 18 months," Andriukaitis said at a news conference.

Europe's opinion of the widely used pesticide has been sharply divided ever since March 2015 when the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. To complicate matters, other regulatory agencies such as the European Food Safety Authority, declared glyphosate as safe in November.

Andriukaitis noted that the 18-month extension will allow the European Chemicals Agency to further assess the product's safety.

However, the fact that the commission originally proposed to extend glyphosate for another 15 years but has now whittled it down to a temporary approval highlights the chemical's uncertain fate on the continent.

"This decision by the commission to extend the approval of glyphosate in spite of last week's vote shows a disdain for the opposition by the public and EU governments to this controversial toxic herbicide," Green Party MEP Bart Staes said.

"As perhaps the first EU decision after the UK referendum, it shows the commission is failing to learn the clear lesson that the EU needs to finally start listening to its citizens again. This temporary extension must be the beginning of the end for glyphosate; we would now urge EU governments and regions to exercise their rights to impose significant restrictions on its use, so we can begin the process of phasing-out glyphosate."

"There are clear concerns about the health risks with glyphosate, both as regards it being a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor," Staes continued. "Moreover, glyphosate's devastating impact on biodiversity should have already led to its ban. The process of phasing-out glyphosate and other toxic herbicides and pesticides from agriculture must begin now, and this means reorienting the EU's Common Agricultural Policy towards a more sustainable agricultural model and a Common Food Policy."

The Green Party noted that under the legislation, EU member states are entitled to impose restrictions on glyphosate, with France and additional municipal authorities already saying they will do so.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth has also objected to the extension.

"Glyphosate has been given a stay of execution in Europe, but it remains the world's most over-used herbicide. Farmers have been told that this chemical is safe—yet there is mounting evidence of the harmful impacts on our health and environment," farming campaigner Clare Oxborrow stated.

"Despite the Brexit vote, the Government must now see that glyphosate's days are numbered and produce a phase-out plan for this and other damaging chemicals. Farmers urgently need independent advice and support on other ways of tackling persistent weeds that do not harm our water, soils and wild species."

"Longer term, the Government's Brexit plans for farming must prioritise a food and farming strategy that builds a diverse, resilient system—supporting flourishing wildlife, sustainable healthy diets and thriving farmers' livelihoods," Oxborrow said. "And local authorities should follow the lead of Hammersmith and Fulham council and stop using Roundup and other weedkillers containing glyphosate in parks, gardens and schools."

Meanwhile, glyphosate manufacturers and the farm lobby celebrated the news.

Crop Protection Association CEO Nick von Westenholz said he was disappointed that EU member states "forced the commission into this position by ignoring the science and advice of expert regulators."

"The indecision of Member States and the need for an extension demonstrates how politicized this process has become," he said. "Nevertheless, it will be a relief to farmers that they will be able to continue to use this crucial tool, at least in the short-term."

He added that the standard 15 year renewal should have been granted and urges the member states "to take the sensible, science led decision to re-licence this safe, efficient and effective product for the full 15 year period once the 18 month extension has expired."

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