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July 2009



Scientific Flipflop

Maywa Montenegro, Seed, June 18, 2009http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/scientific_flip-flop/ 

'Five experts debate the roots of GM opposition, the role of big agribusiness, and whether we've achieved real scientific consensus. '

Why the opposition to genetic engineering? Our Panel Responds: 

* Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist
* Raj Patel, writer and activist
* Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State
* Tom Philpott, food writer, farmer, and cook * Noel Kingsbury, horticulturalist and writer 

On April 22, 1998 the European Union contravened decades of stalwart opposition to genetically engineered crops when it greenlighted the cultivation of "Mon 810," a pest-resistant maize manufactured by Monsanto. 

But despite Mon810's official sanction under EU law, several countries-including France, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg-have imposed national bans on the GE crop. The most recent addition to this list is Germany, which banned the corn in April, just before this year's seeds would have been sown. 

Ilse Aigner, Germany's federal agricultural minister, acknowledged that various federal environmental institutes had failed to come to an agreement about Mon810's environmental risks, but said she was encouraged by the example of Luxembourg, which imposed a moratorium in late March.2 

At the European level, scientific assessments have found the risks Mon810 poses to the environment to be exceedingly small. Which is no surprise, perhaps, since study after study after study has concluded that the hazards-both to human and ecosystem health-are no greater with GE crops than with conventionally grown ones. 

And yet throughout Europe, pubic opinion appears to be turning increasingly against GE crops. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one source told EUbusiness that if the people were asked about Mon810, "there would be a rejection." "The spirit has changed," the source added. "The legislation in a way is operating like an automatic pilot and we have to put some direction in it." 

Most Europeans don't consider themselves to be anti-science or particularly technophobic. In fact, Europe's full embrace of the scientific consensus on another environmental issue, global warming, has enabled the continent to take the clear lead on climate change, with the most ambitious emissions targets, the first carbon trading market, and the greenest urban infrastructure plans on the planet.

Europe's scientific disconnect is more broadly true of eco-minded citizens worldwide: They laud the likes of James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri but shrink in horror at the scientist who offers up a Bt corn plant (even though numerous studies indicate that Bt crops-by dramatically curbing pesticide use-conserve biodiversity on farms and reduce chemical-related sickness among farmers). 

So why the disconnect? Why do many
environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering? Is the fear really about the technology itself or is it a mistrust of big agribusiness?