By Amanda Castleman in Italy Daily, part of The International Herald Tribune
The world’s first fluorescent blossom debuted at the Pescia flower show this summer. The large white bluebell glowed under ultraviolet light — thanks to jellyfish genes inserted by the Experimental Institute of Floriculture in San Remo.
“Hopefully the flower can show that genetic engineering is indeed useful to mankind and not the sinister thing some have been led to believe,” scientist Tito Schiva told ANSA. “It’s really a matter of psychology, and using flowers makes it so much easier to get one’s point across.”
But it takes more than a luminous green bouquet to win over Italians. Sixty-five percent oppose GM technology. And the nation is defying American trade representatives and biotech corporations, who want to bully into the lucrative European market.
Italy fought hard to stop new GM product approval four years ago. But time is running out: The European Commission (EC) is rolling out the red carpet for agribusiness. A new directive went into force on October 17th. It’s coy like a young girl toying with an insistent lover. On the one hand, there are very, very strict restrictions on GM crops and food (Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!). Yet she’s willing to be coaxed, happy to flirt with applications for new products. (Well, maybe just this once…).
The EC promises a “case-by-case assessment of the risks to human health and the environment before any GM product such as maize, tomatoes, insects or micro-organisms can be released into the environment or placed on the market”.
Where does this leave Italy — and other countries who don’t fancy modified meals? Kicking and screaming, like angry chaperons out to save the maiden’s integrity.
So far, so good. Product approval can’t move forward, until Europe agrees on GM labeling and “traceability”. Italy, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium and Austria demand more protection. Ministers squabbled in Luxembourg during mid-October meetings. And the whole messy, unpleasant process ground to a halt.
Warning labels were a major sticking point. Grey areas exist, certainly. Most politicians will tolerate an accidental dash of GM ingredients. But how much is too much? The European Parliament voted in July to lower this threshold from 1 percent to 0.5 percent. Italy’s insistence helped keep amounts minute.
Seeds also came under scrutiny. Three hundred organizations – some 25m people – petitioned for clean crops in the SOS (Save Our Seeds) campaign. The Commission proposed a 0.7 percent margin of error , which was slapped down. That seemingly-innocuous amount would have opened the floodgates to seven billion modified seeds each year in Europe.
Contamination remains a huge fear. Italy has already experienced problems. La Repubblica bought 31 soy-based items in Turin: ten contained genetic material, four were mislabeled. In March 2001, police raided a Monsanto warehouse and seized 112 tons of banned GM maize.
“It is not accidental. It is normal that we have very low levels (of genetic material),” said Jean Michel Duhamel, President of Monsanto’s Italian subsidiary. This is corporate-speak for “whoops, we can’t really keep our seeds straight.”
To make matter worse, modified pollen is travelling farther than anyone expected, interbreeding with regular crops and weeds. And these blunders can have a high price. North American farmers are being sued for “stealing” patented genes — even if a few stray seeds blew off the back of a truck.
Italy’s right to be apprehensive – it has the most to lose. “Organic farming growth in Italy is rapid and the domestic organic market is taking off,” says a recent report from the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The country is home to the largest organically-farmed area in Europe, with more than one million hectares planted in 2000. Plus, Italians pride themselves on fantastic produce – and knowing how to prepare and savour fine foods.
Italy — and other cautious countries — must stand firm as EU talks progress. They mustn’t let big business dictate their diet, stock supermarket shelves with unwanted and frightening food.
Farm Minister Giovanni Alemanno made a bold start last year: “The position that we have on seeds is ‘zero tolerance’ within the technical limits.” He then called for a 50m euro investment to keep the gene pool pure. The minister also promotes “full and honest labeling”.
Let’s just hope Uncle Sam doesn’t administer a force feeding. Washington is angry at the loss of exports to Europe worth around $4.5bn every year — and may run squealing to the World Trade Organization.
Italians could find an unlikely ally, though: The American people. As biotech firms bluster abroad, the average citizen is losing appetite for GM foods. The majority (93%) support labeling, according to an ABC News poll last year. Two-thirds would avoid altered ingredients, given the chance.
Modified foods are getting such a bad name, they can’t even give the stuff away. Zambia and other African states recently refused famine-relief shipments of US corn.
GM supporters can threaten. They can cajole and flatter with green-glowing flowers, fancy speeches. But at the end of the day, Bell’Italia should follow her instincts and slam the door on modified foods