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French refusal to pull up GMO "contaminated" maize splits government

artificial gene constructs are causing political controversy in France.

By | July 18, 2000

LONDON, 18 July (Science Analysed) Members of the French Government are taking different sides after a surprise announcement on 14 July that the Government will not pull up some 4 500 hectares of "contaminated" maize, parts per thousand of whose seeds have been found to contain artificial and unauthorized Bacillus thuringiensis gene constructs.The discovery was revealed last week in a regional newspaper, Le Quotedien du Sud-Ouest, but had been known to the Government since February, a spokesman for the French agricultural research institute, l'Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) told BioMed Central today (18 July).

The contamination had been detected by a government consumer protection agency, the DGCCRF (Direction Generale de la Consommation et de la Repression des Fraudes), whose discoveries were then leaked to the local paper.

According to INRA, the contaminating gene constructs involved are an approved Novartis B.th. construct, and another similar construct called B.th. 11, which has not been approved for use in French agriculture. It is B.th 11 that is causing the controversy.

In an increasingly heated atmosphere yesterday, Dominique Voynet, Minster for Land and Environment, has opposed the decision not to pull up the maize, saying France should "show that she doesn't spread GMO contaminated seeds, whether authorized or not." But the Minister of Agriculture, Jean Glavany, whose constitutuency includes some affected areas, has kept silent.

Farmers, equally, are divided between those who do not want to lose their crops, and those who want them pulled up to pacify consumer fears - but also want government compensation for doing so.

In April, the European Parliament voted in favour of allowing the planting of GMO crops under strong safeguards, a position which is likely to be adopted by the European Council of Ministers towards the end of this year. The French Government position on this crop conflicts with its decision in May to root up plantings of GMO-contaminated oilseed rape — but then there were only 600 hectares were involved. The larger scale of the newly revealed maize discovery, the likely compensation levels, and the impending European ruling, may have influenced the Government's latest choice.

GMO insect-resistant maize has been planted officially in France on a very small and mostly experimental scale — a few hundred hectares — since 1997, but consumer objections have persuaded most farmers to avoid it. Earlier this year, before the current controversy, Daniel Segonds, President of the maize planters' chamber of commerce told a French newspaper "we underestimated the impact of this debate on the public, and the impact of the opponents of GMOs. It's completely irrational, quite outside scientific argument." But Christophe Terrain, a colleague, concluded that in the end "the consumer will choose."

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