As world governments and industry organizations prepare to meet March 24 to 25 in Brazil at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, genetically modified organisms are in the news. The latest controversies include:
A nonprofit group of more than 300 worldwide organizations and individuals claims that biotech giant Monsanto is preparing to renege on its pledge that it won't sell GMO seeds whose next-generation offspring become sterile, thus forcing farmers to buy new seed each year. Monsanto denied the charges.
The Ban Terminator Campaign was formed to prevent Monsanto or other biotech groups from using Terminator sterile seeds. Monsanto pledged in 1999 not to commercialize its Terminator technology. But Ban Terminator coordinator Lucy Sharratt said Monsanto officials wrote in the company's 2005 Pledge Report that Monsanto "would use Terminator seeds in nonfood crops and does not rule out other uses in the future."
Diane Herndon, Monsanto's director of public policy, apologized for any confusion in the report and added: "We stand by our commitment to not use genetic engineering methods that result in sterile seeds. Period."
However, Herndon said Monsanto could develop other GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies) that might "turn off the expression of the biotech trait in the next generation of seed while not affecting all other characteristics of the seed and keeping the seed viable in subsequent generations."
Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner said that has always been the company's policy. "Back in 1999, we said there might be other [GURT] technologies out there and we never precluded the idea that we might pursue them. But we still have the same position that Terminator is not a technology we're going to pursue."
Sharratt believes Monsanto could change that stance if the Convention on Biological Diversity overturns its 2000 moratorium on sterile seed technologies. Although such a discussion is not on the CBD agenda, Sharratt said she has inside knowledge the topic will be brought up. "We see evidence of increasing interest by companies and governments to overthrow the moratorium." She said a group of 500 farmers from around the world, along with "thousands of Brazilian farmers" are planning to protest any discussions in favor of overturning the moratorium.
Despite widespread announcements that the World Trade Organization ruled in February that the European ban on GMOs violated international trade rules, a new report softens the blow for GMO opponents.
Friends of the Earth International obtained a leaked confidential copy of the WTO ruling. According to FoEI, the WTO found that:
*Europe's four-year moratorium on GMOs only broke trade rules because it caused "undue delay" in the approval of new GM foods (as opposed to what?). The WTO dismissed eight other complaints in relation to the moratorium.
*There was also an "undue delay" in the EU's approval procedures for more than 20 specified biotech products. However, the WTO dismissed 11 other complaints about product-specific EU measures.
"(This report) reveals that the big corporations that stand behind the WTO failed to get the big win they were hoping for. Free trade proponents needed a clear victory in this dispute to be able to push governments in the EU and the developing world to accept genetically modified food. They failed, and now is the time to build a consensus that the WTO, with its business-only agenda, is the wrong place to decide on what people eat and how we protect our environment," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels.
Simon Barber, a representative of the biotech industry group EuropaBio, told FoodNavigator newsletter that the WTO is not "forcing people to have things they don't want. Environmental protection has never come into this discussion. The only thing being challenged was the trade rules."
FoEI also recently released another report, in conjunction with the African Center for Biosafety, that concluded that during the last 10 years, African GM crops have not been found to be safer, cheaper or better quality than non-GM crops. The report also stated that GM crops in Africa aren't solving hunger because most of the seeds commercialized so far have been used for animal feed.