Spanish farmers plow lone GM furrow in Europe

By Martin Roberts, Reuters

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 on biotechnology.

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 said.

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 maize.

Biotechnology industry sources say they have voluntarily limited sales of GM seeds so far as they wish to introduce the technology progressively.

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 and soymeal.

"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 modified.

"Most farmers think they should be allowed to grow what is already imported," Rivera said.