Andy Coghlan, reporter
Europe’s dysfunctional rules authorising the sale and production of genetically modified foods just became even more of a dog’s dinner. the reason: the region’s highest court ruled yesterday that if ordinary honey gets accidentally contaminated with pollen from genetically modified crops, then it qualifies as a GM food itself.
The ramifications are huge. the ruling by the European Court of Justice means that to sell such honey legally under European law, beekeepers would need to get the “contaminated” produce officially approved for sale through Europe’s convoluted approval process for GM foods. if cleared for sale, the honey would also need to be labelled as a GM food.
This is nonsense, says the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch site. the approval process is so complex, expensive and convoluted that the only organisations with the time and money to negotiate it are multinational agrochemical companies.
But it may well open up the possibilities for beekeepers to sue “contaminators” of their unsaleable honey for compensation, says the anti-GM lobby group, Friends of the Earth.
The case was originally brought by amateur Bavarian beekeepers against the Bavarian state government. the beekeepers had discovered that their hives, honey and honey-based supplements had been adulterated with GM maize pollen from nearby field trials sponsored by the state government, so they took their case to the Bavarian Higher Administrative Court.
The court couldn’t reach a verdict, so it was referred to the European Court of Justice, which delivered its decision yesterday. It ruled that because pollen, of any sort, is an accepted ingredient of honey, the GM maize pollen qualifies as ingredient, so the honey in question becomes “produced from GM organisms”, even though the pollen got there accidentally.
“The pollen in question consequently comes within the scope of the regulation and must be subject to the authorisation scheme provided for there-under before being placed on the market,” it concludes.
Friends of the Earth says that the ruling “opens the way for Europe’s laws on GM crops to be strengthened”, even though the current rules are already the strictest in the world, effectively excluding from Europe even GM products that have been fully approved by the European Food Safety Agency.
For example, the GM pollen in question came from MON 810, a strain of GM maize developed by the US multinational Monsanto to be resistant to the European corn borer pest. It was approved as safe for consumption and sale in Europe in 1998. Commentators quoted in The Guardian say that because the maize has already been cleared for human consumption, it seems perverse to outlaw honey that happens to be adulterated with tiny amounts.
The ruling further complicates existing rules that are already incredibly complex. In February this year, the EU agreed to change its “zero tolerance” rules forbidding the sale of imported animal fodder if it contained even the minutest trace of GM organisms not already approved in Europe. the rules were unenforceable because fodder, such as soybeans or maize, often comes from places like South America, where production of GM crops is so widespread that it’s practically impossible to grow and transport to Europe crops that are totally free of any GM contamination.
Because of hat, the EU changed its rules in February to allow GM contamination up to a threshhold of 0.1 per cent of any consignment.
Yesterday’s honey ruling doesn’t affect the new rules as they apply to animal fodder, but it does resurrect questions about how much contamination would be allowable in produce like honey for direct human consumption, and who would be liable in cases like that of the Bavarian beekeepers.
The irony is that in the US and Canada, where growth of GM crops is widespread, it’s almost inevitable that huge amounts of honey containing GM pollen will already have been unknowingly consumed, apparently with no ill effects.
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