Public opposition to genetically modified food remains strong in the European Union, yet scientists and legislators are pushing ahead. The recent EU Commission approval given to Syngenta to sell Bt-11 GM sweet corn for human consumption, despite Council failing to approve it, was interpreted by many as a call to arms. Consumers, farmers, regional bodies and local politicians are responding by setting up GM-free zones, as Alan Osborn reports.

Democracy works in odd ways as far as genetically modified (GM) food in the European Union (EU) is concerned. We start with the fact that most of the public opposes it. A recent survey by the European Commission found that 70.9% of European shoppers were hostile to foods containing GM ingredients. Europe's biggest retailer, the French Carrefour Group, says it could be as high as 75%. And second, most of the 25 EU member states are either opposed to the introduction of GM foods or at least not specifically in favour of it.

You'd have to look hard here to find a mandate for pushing ahead yet that's precisely what the Commission did last year when it approved a bid by the Swiss company Syngenta to sell its Bt-11 sweet corn for human consumption in the EU. The decision effectively broke the de facto moratorium on GM foods that had lasted for over six years. The member states had been split on the Syngenta issue and after many attempts and the pledge of a Commission sweetener in the form of a range of consumer safeguards, they could reach no decision either way. Brussels subsequently pushed it through under the so-called "comitology" procedure, which allows it to make a decision when the Council of Ministers cannot either approve or reject a measure.

How much will change?

Commenting on the decision the European Confederation of Food and Drink Industries said that GM products "will continue to arouse deep consumer suspicion," noting that many consumers were against buying GM-derived foods. "The food and drink sector respects this feeling and consumers should not expect much to change [under the new rules]," the organisation said.

The Commission's go-ahead to Syngenta maize enraged anti-GM campaigners but more importantly perhaps it seems to have stimulated farming groups, regional bodies and local politicians into setting up "GM-free" zones. According to Adrian Bebb, GM specialist at Friends of the Earth, over 3,500 regions or sub regions in Europe have now stated that they will not grow GM crops. "In Greece every region has gone GM-free. In Italy virtually all have and the same is true in Austria. In Germany there are hundreds of GM-free zones. In Britain the whole of the south west and Wales is GM-free and that's where maize would be grown if it was grown in Britain," he said. "Something big is happening here - this is not coming from activists, it's coming from politicians."

Commission's gung-ho stance has triggered protest

Bebb says this development is a direct consequence of the Commission's decision on Syngenta maize and its go-ahead last year for 17 different types of a Monsanto seed. "This has upset many countries and regions - not just the decision itself but the way it was reached by the Commission, which is completely unsustainable," he said. A number of regions have joined with FoE and other NGOs to call for a change in the law "so that a region may say no."

While some of these non-GM zones may be little more than window-dressing, it's often not hard to see the point being made. A region may well pride itself on its local food, proclaiming its purity and authenticity, only to find its produce contaminated by stray GM elements for which no clear democratic mandate exists.

Is coexistence possible?

The buzzword here is "coexistence"; in other words the regulation of GM crops so that they do not cross-pollinate and contaminate conventional agriculture. The outgoing agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler made a "recommendation" that this should be an EU policy. His successor, Mariann Fischer Boel, from Denmark, has gone further. She has called for a report by the end of this year on how different countries have approached coexistence, to see if a European framework, to which national laws might be fitted, could be adopted. "She sees this as like a Christmas tree on to which the member states can hang their own ornaments", says Michael Mann, the Commission agricultural spokesman. But it can only be a framework rather than a hard and fast EU directive because of the widely varying pattern of agriculture through the 25 member countries, he says. Any agreed framework would come into effect from early next year.

The idea that there should be a common approach was supported earlier this month (January) by the EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou, who said that while the GM foods were allowed into the EU in theory "in practice they face major hurdles." Differences between member countries led to complications "and it would be good at some point if Council (the EU Council of Ministers) revises the issue." The problem was that there were at present different approaches among member states on coexistence and on thresholds. "Member states don't even agree between themselves when it comes to the approval of products," he said.

UK and Netherlands lead EU support for GM

Within the EU Council of Ministers, the leading supporters for the introduction of GM as a general principle are Britain and the Netherlands. At the other end the main objectors are Denmark, Austria, Luxembourg and Sweden. Germany and France generally oppose GM introductions though not always. Italy opposes them about half the time. Overall it could be said that there is very seldom a qualified majority within the council's complex population-weighted voting formula either for or against a proposal to approve a GM product.

The new European Commission is too fresh in office for a full and comprehensive proposal to be made in dealing with this problem, but "we are seeing some encouraging language from the new agricultural commissioner," said Bebb. He said that Fischer Boel's mission to ensure that conventional and organic agriculture could co-exist was "a sensible position." The last Commission proposed to contaminate conventional seeds with GMOs "so her position is positive and it is what we've been proposing for four years."

The big test this year will come when the EU has to decide whether or not to admit two maize crops - from Syngenta and Dow - and an oil seed rape crop from Bayer. At present the expectation is that they will be given the go-ahead but they could well be the last products to be allowed before strict EU coexistence rules come into play next year.