(Beyond Pesticides, November 2, 2009) Ireland has passed a policy banning the cultivation of all genetically modified (GM) crops and introducing a voluntary GM-free label for food — including meat, poultry, eggs, fish, crustaceans, and dairy produce made without the use of GM animal feed as a way “[t]o optimize Ireland’s competitive advantage as a GM-Free country.” The policy is a part of the Renewed Programme for Government agreement that was adopted in October and is supported by many stakeholder groups, including the Irish Cattle and Sheepfarmers Association who have been working on this issue since 2004.
The passage of the policy is at a time when the international market for GM-free animal produce is growing rapidly. Across Europe, hundreds of leading food brands and dozens of leading retailers now offer premium meat, fish, eggs, poultry eggs and dairy produce made without the use of GM feedstuffs. These are backed by GM-free labels and Government regulations in Austria, Italy, Germany, with France to follow later this year. Sales of GM-free milk have skyrocketed since the label came into effect in Germany.
In the U.S., to which Ireland exports vast quantities of dairy produce (including milk powder and casein for cheese production), leading food manufacturers, retailers, processors, distributors, farmers, seed breeders and consumers have set up joint venture called the Non-GMO Project, which already provides GM-free labels for over 1,000 food products by individual manufacturers in addition to thousands of GM-free private retail brands. The Non-GMO (genetically modified organism) Project focuses on the belief that everyone deserves the information to make an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified products, and a common mission to ensure the sustained availability of non-GMO choices. The Non-GMO Project has enrolled over 1,000 food products by individual manufacturers in its non-GMO verification program, in addition to thousands of private retail labels that are also in the process of becoming “”˜Non-GMO Project Verified.”
Ireland’s geographical isolation and offshore Atlantic western winds provide a natural barrier to contamination by wind-borne GM pollen drift from countries such as the UK and Spain, which still allow commercial release and/or field trials of GM crops. There has never been any commercial release of GM crops on the island of Ireland, and the only field trial of GM crops that took place in the Republic was stopped by protestors in 1998. This is not the case in other European Union (EU) member states. Despite national and regional bans or moratoria on the commercial cultivation of GM crops in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Switzerland, many of these countries have previously allowed (or been illegally subjected to) the commercial release of GM crops, and many of them still allow uncontained GM field trials. Banning GM crops in a given country does not guarantee their absence there, and conducting field trials usually results in contamination, which can travel across borders and is frequently irreversible.
In 2007, the Irish Government adopted a weaker policy “to seek to negotiate to declare the island of Ireland as a GMO-free zone,” but failure to define the implications of the policy for GM animal feed created confusion in the farming sector and the Government failed to even draft any related legislation to implement the policy. That said, Ireland did stop voting in favor of new GMOs in Brussels and has since joined the majority of EU member states that back an Austrian proposal, presented in June 2009, for the EU Commission to allow national bans on GM crops. The Austrian proposal is co-signed by Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and the Netherlands; it was subsequently backed by France, Poland, Portugal, and parts of the German government, and is now supported by the majority of member states.
Although Ireland’s new affirmative GM-free policy unambiguously aims to ban both commercial release as well as field trials of GM crops, it requires implementing legislation in the Republic, as well as Northern Ireland to prevent contamination from across the border. Although the UK is one of the few remaining EU member states whose government still officially supports GM food and farming, the UK regions of Scotland and Wales also strongly oppose the release of GM crops. This leaves Westminister isolated with only a few English counties still in favour of GM crops in the whole of the UK.
Michael O’Callaghan of GM-free Ireland said the policy signals a new dawn for Irish farmers and food producers, “The WTO’s economic globalization agenda has forced most Irish farmers to enter an unwinnable race to the bottom for low quality GM-fed meat and dairy produce, in competition with countries like the USA, Argentina and Brazil which can easily out-compete us with their highly subsidized GM crop monocultures, cheap fossil fuel, extensive use of toxic agrochemicals that are not up to EU standards, and underpaid migrant farm labor. Meanwhile, hundreds of European food brands, retailers and Regions now offer GM-free beef, pork, lamb, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy produce as part of their Food Safety, Quality Agriculture, Biodiversity, Fair Trade, Sustainable Development and Climate Change strategies. Thousands of brands in the USA are doing likewise. Without a GM-free label to distinguish our produce, Irish food is being excluded from this global market.”
“Ireland has taken a truly inspiring step towards ensuring consumers’ right to choose non-GMO products,” said Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project Megan Thompson. “As more and more companies in the USA and Canada are looking for non-GMO ingredients, this is a very timely move and we look forward to developing sourcing opportunities with GM-free producers in Ireland.”
In the U.S., environmental and public health groups believe that, at a very minimum, labeling as a means of identifying products that contain GM ingredients are critical and complete regulatory review of all GM crops, which is currently not the case. Organic agriculture does not permit GE crops or the use of synthetic herbicides, and focuses on building the soil—minimizing its effect on climate change. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ GE program page.