The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally by using recombinant DNA technology to combine DNA molecules from different sources in one molecule(FAUSTINO et al., 2009). Even though science is not yet able to predict all the risks related to GMOs, the possibility that they pose risks to human health and the environment cannot be ruled out (NODARI and GUERRA, 2003).
In recent years, and despite the scientific uncertainty surrounding them, numerous studies linking the use of GMOs to human health disorders have been released (WALIA, 2014). There are concerns that genetically modified foods contain allergens, high levels of natural toxins and low levels of essential nutrients (PONTE, 2014). Furthermore, environmental contamination through gene transfer between different crops can produce unintended and undesirable effects on soil fertility and quality, ecosystems and biodiversity (FAUSTINO et al., 2009). As a result, by allowing GMOs to be grown in the country, the Government of Portugal has adopted a lenient and misguided approach to guaranteeing food security and on the precautionary principle (ESQUERDA.NET, 2015).
The corporations that produce and sell GMOs affirm that the two most important benefits of growing them are the reduction in fertiliser and pesticide use and the possibility of manipulating the vitamin and mineral content of food to increase them. They also claim that GMOs can increase productivity and control losses.
In Portugal, in an interview with RTP2, researcher at the Catholic University of Portugal - Porto and the coordinator of the No GMOs Coalition Margarida Silva highlighted the need to apply the precautionary principle, since GMOs are “guilty until proven innocent and the burden of proof lies with the corporations that promote them”. She also pointed out that European legislation requires tests capable of anticipating the long-term effects of GMOs to be conducted before they are allowed on the market. However, in the approvals of GMOs, a blind eye has been turned to this requirement due to the difficulties involved in conducting these tests (RTP2, 2011).
Portugal has traditionally been an agricultural country. Even though the importance of agriculture in the country’s economy has decreased with the advance in industrialisation, the European Community’s reports show that it is still greater in Portugal than in most European countries (CE, 2003).
Between 1999 and 2004, a moratorium suspended the production of GMOs in the EU. They were only grown in Spain, which was a leading producer among the countries of the European Community. In 2003, the EU published general guidelines for the definition of standards of good practices to guarantee coexistence between genetically modified agriculture and conventional or organic agriculture. The same year, the obligation to label food or animal feed containing GMOs was imposed. In 2004, the EU registered 17 genetically modified varieties of maize (SCHMIDT, 2007) for commercial production.
In Portugal, Decree-Law no. 72/2003 of 10-04 transposes European Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. Currently, genetically modified corn and soybean are grown in Europe, but the transnational corporations from the sector plan to include other seeds and reduce the supply of conventional seeds. Genetically modified (GM) canola and cotton has already been approved in Europe, and GM rice, papaya, wheat and other foods in other parts of the world (RTP2, 2011).
In 1999, environmental and farmers’ organisations in Portugal created the Plataforma Transgénicos Fora do Prato(PTFP, or the No GMOs on the Plate Coalition). The founding organisations were the Associação de Agricultura Biológica (Agrobio), Produtos de Agricultura Biológica (Biocoop), Fundo para a Proteção dos Animais Selvagens (FAPAS), Grupo de Ação e Intervenção Ambiental (Gaia), Grupo de Estudos de Ordenamento do Território e Ambiente (Geota), Liga de Proteção da Natureza (LPN), a Liga Portuguesa dos Direitos do Animal and Associação Nacional de Conservação da Natureza (Quercus) (RTP2, 2011).
Its sphere of action includes activities such as activist workshops, various protests, participation in the meetings of public bodies, questioning government actions and decisions, holding information sessions, speeches, conferences, awareness and mobilisation campaigns geared towards the population and the public administration, disseminating studies, interventions in schools and universities, and communicating with farmers who grow GMOs, supermarkets and consumers, as can be seen in the materials published on the coalition’s website.
The themes on which the coalition works are the main issues raised by the growing, importing and consumption of GMOs and opposition to them. This includes the fight to halt the increase in the cultivation of GM corn; boycotting the sale and consumption of GMO food products in supermarkets; the Free Seeds campaign that works in coordination with the European movement to oppose transnational corporations’ monopoly on seeds; and contesting and raising awareness on the growing use of herbicides in public spaces and of glyphosate-based herbicides in general. The regulation of the cultivation of GMOs in the country for not only the food sector, but also fuel widened the issue, which led the coalition to change its name to Plataforma Transgénicos Fora (PTF) or the No GMOs Coalition.
In the years that followed, the people of Portugal revealed their opposition to GMOs in several ways. In 2000, the second national survey on the representations and practices of the Portuguese population on the environment (FERREIRA DE ALMEIDA et al., 2004), carried out by the Observa research programme at the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS) at the University of Lisbon, revealed that the large majority of participants had very cautious positions. The study found that close to one third stated that before generalising the use of GMOs in human food, more guarantees were needed to ensure that they do not harm human health (33%) and one fifth of respondents were radically opposed to the sale of GMOs (20%). For 16,3% of survey participants, GMOs can be sold, but they must be properly labelled. Only 1.4% said that were not concerned with the issue and considered that GMOs should be produced and sold without restriction (SCHMIDT et al., 2004).
In June 2004, Greenpeace International and the Plataforma Transgénicos Fora do Prato (PTFP) organised a press conference to present a joint declaration denouncing the unrestricted entry of illegal GMOs in Portugal. This happened during the public announcement of the creation of the coalition, which is the reason why the international group travelled to Portugal - to show its support for the fight against GMOs in the country (AGRONOTICIAS, 2006; QUERCUS, 2004). Led in Portugal by the No GMOs Coalition, the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) was then launched to demand improvements to the European process of authorising pesticides and the establishment of mandatory targets for the reduction of pesticide use in the EU. 9,632 signatures were gathered (of which 8,901 were online, and the rest on paper) and submitted to the competent national authority for validation. In total, in the entire EU, 1,320,517 people signed the petition. The EC now has the legal obligation to respond to the three requests in question by proposing concrete measures to implement them (PTF, 2017).
Several municipal councils and regions got involved and declared that they aimed to remain free from GMOs. In 2004, despite the absence of national legislation on this issue, Algarve was the first region of Portugal to declare itself a GMO-free zone. This declaration was made by 16 municipalities in the region through the Associação de Municípios do Algarve (AMAL, or Association of Municipalities of the Region of Algarve).
It was only in 2007 that it became legally possible to declare GMO Free Zones based on the decision of farmers or a municipal initiative. To do so, the request to establish a free zone must be approved by an absolute majority of the votes of the members present at a local municipal assembly meeting. While these decisions are not binding, they do serve as an important tool for opposing GMOs. Conflicts often emerge between positions in favour of and against their declaration, which generates a public debate on the issue.
Also in 2007, the environmental group Verde Eufémia organised an action where approximately 100 people partially destroyed a corn field grown from Monsanto seeds in Silves, in the Algarve region. The action received widespread media coverage.
Another exemplary case is that of the Azores islands. In 2012, the Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region of Azores declared the archipelago a GMO-Free Zone. Before doing so, however, they were forced to deal with direct pressure from the United States ambassador who sent letters to political representatives of the autonomous region to defend the GMOs and attempt to influence the decision.
Current, three regions – Algarve, Madeira Island and the Azores Islands – are GMO Free Zones. On the continent, over 27 municipalities declared themselves free from GMOs. They are: Alcochete, Alenquer, Aljezur, Amares, Arouca, Barreiro, Cadaval, Coimbra, Constância, Lagos, Loulé, Mértola, Moita, Monforte, Mora, Moura, Odemira, Ponte da Barca, Portimão, Póvoa de Lanhoso, Rio Maior, Salvaterra de Magos, Sintra, Soure, Terras de Bouro, Vila do Bispo and Vila Verde (GMO FREE EUROPE, 2015).
Genetically modified corn plantations, namely of the MON810 variety developed by the Monsanto corporation, constitute the main problem of GMO production and consumption in Portugal. The corn is the cereal that has the highest number of genetically modifications for human and animal food in Europe.
As for the cultivation of GM corn, data from the General Directorate of Agriculture and Regional Development (DGADR, for its acronym in Portuguese) show that the size of the area used to grow GM corn decreased in 2015 and represented only 6% of the total corn grown. This area planted with GM corn went from 7,724 hectares in 2011 to 9,278 hectares in 2012, 8,192 hectares in 2013, 8,542 hectares in 2014 and 8,017 ha in 2015 (GARCIA, 2015; AGÊNCIA LUSA, 2016). Alentejo is the region of Portugal with the highest number of hectares planted in GM corn. The Alqueva irrigation system has contributed to the increase in the area occupied by this corn variety (MON810) in Alentejo. In 2005, 596 of the 772 hectares in the country sown with this strain of corn were located there. In 2014, of the 8,542 hectares planted in GM corn, 5,456 were spread out over 23 municipalities in Alentejo, which are under the influence of the Alqueva reservoir (DIAS, 2014).
With regards to sales and consumption, EU legislation requires food products containing more than 0.9% of genetically modified material to provide information on GM content in their label. One study that tested a variety of processed food items for the presence of GM corn between 2007 and 2010 in Portugal found that 4% of the products analysed contained more than the minimum amount requiring for labelling and yet, none of them declared the presence of GMOs in their label (FERNANDES et al., 2014). Some initiatives have been taken to contest the sale of GMOs. In 2013, for example, researchers visited the 10 biggest Portuguese hypermarkets in the cities of Lisbon and Porto to evaluate the supply of food products containing GMOs. They provided information to consumers. The results of this intervention found that only one of the supermarkets analysed did not sell products containing GMOs.
The GMO issue also involves broader questions related to the agricultural sector such as rights to seed and pesticide use. The Monsanto corporation is a world leader in the production of genetically modified seeds and glyphosate-based herbicides. This US-based transnational corporation has been the target of strong opposition from environmental and anti-GMO movements all over the world. Accused of falsifying data on the risks of using Roundup, the company has been found guilty twice for false advertising – once by a New York court in 1996 and again in France in 2012, for the chemical poisoning of a farmer who says he suffered neurological problems after inhaling the Lasso weed killer in 2004. The judges ruled that the phrases “biodegradable”, “leaving the soil clean after use” and “respects the environment” were false advertising (ROBIN, 2008).
In 2013, a global march against Monsanto was held. Hundreds of cities in over 50 countries joined the “March against Monsanto” to protest against genetic manipulation and the monopolisation of the market by the transnational agriculture and biotechnology corporation whose headquarters are located in Missouri, US. In Portugal, protests were staged in the cities of Lisbon, Porto, Horta and Ponta Delgada (ESQUERDA.NET, 2013a, 2013b).
In 2014, environmental organizations and the No GMO Coalition sent a letter to all mayors in Portugal to warn them of the risks of herbicide use in urban spaces to the environment and health. They highlighted the increase in the use of glyphosate in Portugal. They also urged municipalities to join the “Glyphosate Free Municipalities” initiative and to take advantage of the global Pesticides Action Week held in the month of March (QUERCUS, 2014).
When the German corporation Bayer announced in 2010 its intention to sell GM rice in the EU, anti-GMO organisations protested and carried out campaigns to pressure EU countries to position themselves against the sale of this product. In July 2010, after months of campaigning by the PTF and a vote in the Assembly of the Republic, the Minister of Agriculture stated during a meeting with the coalition that Portugal would take a stance against GM rice at both the technical and political level (TVI24, 2010).
In May 2013, the European Commission passed a law that granted European bodies new powers to regulate and classify seeds and plants in Europe. According to European authorities, the goal was to guarantee the security and quality of agricultural products by determining that the sale or exchange of any seed, bulb or seedling, vegetable or trees that has not been approved by the new Community Plant Variety Office is illegal. To get a product on the approved list, farmers would have to pay a fee. The following year, the European Parliament rejected the law (BOAS NOTÍCIAS, 2014). The process of discussing this law and the vote was marked by a broad campaign against it at the European and national level. The Free Seeds campaign alerted the public about the threats of the growing privatisation of seeds to our common genetic heritage and food security (QUERCUS, n.d.).
In December 2015, the European Patent Office (EPO) was preparing to discuss the approval of more patents on plants that are the result of conventional breeding processes, as in the case of tomatoes with reduced water content. This type of decision goes against the European Patent Convention that prohibits patents on plant varieties to avoid the risk of blocking free access to plants and animals for human consumption (PTF, 2015).
In January 2015, the EU transferred the decision on whether or not to ban the cultivation of genetically modified organisms to Member States; the majority of them took measures to restrict their production. Of the 28 Member States, 19 have totally banned or imposed some limits on the growing of GMOs. Currently, GM corn is grown in only five countries: the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain (PAN, 2016; LUSA, 2016).
Portugal moved, however, in the opposite direction in January 2016, when the Assembly of the Republic rejected four draft laws that would ban the cultivation of GMOs in the country (LUSA, 2016).
Later, in August 2016, the US government passed a law that requires food producers to include information on labels informing consumers that the product contains genetically modified ingredients. The company can explicitly transmit this information by including the acronym “GMO” on the label or by using a symbol or QR code that allows consumers to trace the product with their phone. This measure brings greater transparency to the country that is currently the biggest producer and consumer of genetically modified foods in the world (BARBOSA, 2016).
On September 14, 2016, Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto was announced – a deal that, if approved, will have major implications for the global food market. The alliance between the transnational corporation from the agrochemicals and pharmaceutical sectors and the agrochemicals company will create a giant in the field of genetically modified seeds, pesticides and other chemicals for agriculture, which will control close to 30% of the global market (PEREIRA, 2016). On March 30, 2017, environmentalists from Friends of the Earth Europe held a protest at the EC offices in Brussels to contest the merger of the Monsanto and Bayer conglomerates (SILVA, 2017). The provisional deadline for the EC to make its decision is August 7 (PÚBLICO, 2017).
In September 2016, the European Commission approved 11 GM corn varieties for commercialisation, meaning they could be introduced directly into a range of food products, from flour to glucose syrups used in the industrial production of cakes and cookies, and animal feed. The authorisation is valid for 10 years and does not permit the cultivation of these varieties; only one GM variety - Mon810 – can be grown in the EU. The 11 GMOs in question underwent an approval process and received a favourable opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (AVEIRO, 2016).
Over a three-day period in October 2016, in The Hague, the Netherlands, the Monsanto Tribunal heard the testimonies of 30 individuals from various countries who have been affected by Monsanto. The popular tribunal had the support of close to 200 organisations whose goal was to accuse Monsanto of the crime of ecocide. The key issues raised were: the right to a healthy environment, health, food, freedom of expression and to academic research. The corporation’s complicity with war crimes (Monsanto produced Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War) was also denounced. According to data from the testimonies, the company promotes an industrial agricultural model that generates at least one third of greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for the unprecedented degradation of biodiversity and the migration of millions of farmers. The tribunal will make a file that can be used in future processes against Monsanto and similar companies available. The corporation turned down the invitation to appear before and present its defence to the tribunal and affirmed that it was organised by people who are opposed to modern agriculture (OPERA MUNDI, 2106).
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June 30, 2017
Anti-GMO struggles in Portugal and the
Increasingly common on consumers’ plates, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have sparked a heated debate that pits environmentalist groups concerned with preserving the common genetic heritage against transnational corporations that hold a monopoly on seeds and the world agricultural production. Although science cannot predict all the risks of GMO use, several studies have already been published that link their use to human health disorders and reveal their adverse effects on ecosystems and biodiversity. The No GMOs Coalition formed by 11 NGOs warns about the risks that the Portuguese government’s permissive stance poses for food security and the need to apply the precautionary principle to GMOs.