February 10, 2006

French Law Puts GMO Costs on Farmers

By Sybille de La Hamaide

PARIS -- France is proposing a new law that would effectively absolve the government of financial responsibility for contamination caused by genetically modified (GMO) crops, a move condemned by environmental groups.

In legislation put forward this week, France's research ministry suggested that farmers growing GMO crops would have to contribute to a fund to compensate for any contamination claims from neighboring growers of traditional varieties.

"It is intolerable that the research ministry...is preparing to legalize environmental pollution, putting citizens' health at risk and sentencing French people, who are massively opposed to GMOs, to genetic contamination," Arnaud Apoteker, spokesman of Greenpeace France, said.

France's main farm unions welcomed the new laws, which are part of a larger set of proposals presented on Wednesday aimed at implementing a key 2001 European directive allowing GMO growing under certain conditions.

The World Trade Organization also ruled earlier this week that the European Union and six member states broke trade rules by barring entry to GMO foods and crops. France permits GMO maize to be grown.

Concern that GMO strains of wheat or maize could cross pollinate with traditional seeds has been one of the main focuses of environmental and anti-biotech groups who oppose foods they think may pose a health danger.

Biotech firms, such as the big seedmakers like Monsanto of the U.S. and Swiss chemicals group Syngenta maintain their seeds are safe and can increase yields while using less pesticide.

Paris has come under pressure to further open its farms to GMO after the European Commission referred France to the EU's highest court last week over its failure to adopt biotech laws and requested a daily fine of 168,800 euros ($202,100).

But France, home to anti-globalization campaigner Jose Bove, convicted several times for destroying test fields of GMO maize, was not obliged to immediately tackle the highly sensitive issue of cross-contamination between crops.

The current EU law states farmers finding more than 0.9 percent of GM materials in conventional crops must label the products as containing GMOs, which can lead to lower prices, but does not speak of any compensation fund or law.


Environment campaigners and some growers groups protested that the proposal, which forces farmers to pay up to 100 euros per hectares of GM crops for a maximum of five years, also puts the whole responsibility of contamination on farmers' shoulders.

"The proposed legislation is planning to force farmers to carry the can. It thereby organizes a total impunity for the food industry, seed makers and transporters," Greenpeace said.

But the country's main farm unions said the proposal, finally lays out a set of rules for growing GMO crops.

"It seemed indispensable to define at last a clear framework for producers, which would respect their choice and those of consumers," they said in a joint press release.

Opponents say GMOs should be banned altogether because cross-pollination is inevitable and makes it impossible for consumers to have a real choice over the food they purchase.

A large majority of French people agree.

A French poll published on Tuesday by a coalition of environmental and farming groups showed 78 percent of those questioned would like a temporary ban on GMOs to evaluate their health and environmental impact.