LISBON, Spain, June 4, 2003 --
CropChoice news: Spanish farmers, alone in Europe, already grow
gene-modified crops on a commercial scale and would gladly plant
more if U.S. efforts force the European Union to ease restrictions
Crop specialist Jesus Rivera at the 300,000-strong Spanish Young
Farmers' Association said growers were "dying" for GM
cotton to be approved, which requires spraying with herbicide or
insecticide just once or twice a year, compared with 10 or 12 times
for conventional seed.
Spain is one of the EU's main producers, producing about 300,000
tons of raw cotton a year.
"As it isn't a foodstuff, there are no commercial problems.
In fact, the EU already imports a lot of GM cotton," Rivera
The United States, where biotech crops are common, said on May
13 it would sue the EU at the World Trade Organization unless Brussels
ended a de facto moratorium in place since 1998.
Although there is no evidence of harm from GM crops -- engineered
to resist pests or to withstand weedkiller -- European consumers
are edgy about such technology after recent food scares.
Few EU governments have approved even varieties that have received
the green light in Brussels.
But there is no blanket EU ban on GM crops, only on varieties seeking
approval after the moratorium, and Spanish farmers have for years
been growing a variety of maize designed to resist the corn borer
pest, which weakens maize stalks and stunts the growth of corn cobs
or eats its way through them.
GM maize on the increase
Approval by the Spanish government earlier this year of five new
commercial brands of so-called Bt maize may allow areas currently
being planted in GM maize to double this year.
"Given increased availability, areas could reach 40,000 hectares
this year, but no more than that," said Esteban Alcalde, regulatory
manager for biotechnology seed company Syngenta .
That compares with 20,000 hectares planted last year out of a total
of 460,000 sown to all maize in Spain, and would be enough to produce
some 400,000 tons of grain.
Growers say they have no problems selling gene-spliced maize to
animal feed makers, which consume about 4.5 million tons of maize
a year, although manufacturers of starch for human consumption will
only buy GM-free grain.
But Bt maize is unlikely to be grown outside areas affected by
the corn borer, and a study commissioned by industry lobby ANTAMA
estimates that a maximum of 175,000 hectares could be sown to biotech
Biotechnology industry sources say they have voluntarily limited
sales of GM seeds so far as they wish to introduce the technology
The industry says an end to the EU moratorium could also make quickly
available GM sugar beet and rapeseed. In the near future it expects
GM wheat and barley and possibly sunflower seed to be on the market.
However, farmers say sugar refiners would not currently accept
GM beet, and demand for rapeseed was seen as limited in Spain, where
just 10,000 tons a year are grown.
Greenpeace condemns government
Environmental group Greenpeace condemned Spain's decision to approve
new brands of GM maize, saying the government was out of step with
its European partners and had no means to protect conventional or
organic crops from being contaminated.
GM opponents say genetic contamination is irreversible and its
as yet unknown effects need to be studied in more detail. Greenpeace
says the biotechnology is based on a too simplistic model of how
organisms transmit genetic information.
Supporters of the technology say biotech crops might benefit the
environment as they require less pesticide and herbicide.
They also note Europe already imports large amounts of GM soybeans
"Europe has little choice -- it grows almost no soy,"
a grain dealer said.
Customs figures show Spain's biggest supplier of soybeans is the
United States, where 60 percent of all soy grown is genetically
"Most farmers think they should be allowed to grow what is
already imported," Rivera said.