VIVARO, Italy –
Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental
groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him
poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.
In fact, said
Fidenato, a 45-year-old agronomist, he planted two entire fields of genetically
modified corn. But since “corn looks like corn,” as he put it, it took his
opponents weeks to find his crop.
The seeds, known as
MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae
of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow
this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special
permission for any genetically modified crop – and the Agriculture Ministry
never said ‘yes.’
“We had no choice but
to engage in civil disobedience – these seeds are legal in Europe,” said
Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more
inspiration from Ron Paul than from Mahatma Gandhi.
The World Trade
Organization says that general bans on genetically modified crops constitute an
unfair trade barrier, because there is no scientific basis for exclusion. But
four years after a WTO panel ruled that EU policies constituted an illegal “de
facto moratorium” on the planting of genetically modified seeds, some farmers
like Fidenato and seed producers like Monsanto complain that Europe still has
not really opened its doors.
provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the
offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town.
Officials seized two suspect fields – about 5 hectares – and declared the
plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks’
tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.
On Aug. 9, 100
machete-wielding environmental activists from an anti-globalization group
called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police
officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones
reading: “Danger – Contaminated – GMO.”
Giancarlo Galan, who
became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters “vandals,” although
he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the
previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region,
applauded the rampage, saying: “There is a need to show multinationals that
they can’t introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without
Over the past decade,
genetically modified crops have been a major source of trade friction between
Europe and the United States.
Both the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say there is no
scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous. But there is greater
disagreement on how genetically modified plants affect ecosystems and whether
traditional and genetically modified crops can be kept apart to avoid what
organic farmers call “contamination” of traditional crops by modified plants or
genes. Seed or pollen can travel with the wind or on farm equipment or truck
tires, sometimes for hundreds of miles.
This issue is
particularly sensitive in Italy, whose farmers rely heavily on specialized
organic and heritage crops, like hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. Crops
contaminated with genetically modified material can lose its organic
designation. Farmers worry that plants with tailor-made survival genes will
over time displace tastier traditional varieties. Even in the United States,
reservations linger. This month, a federal judge in San Francisco revoked
permission for further planting of genetically modified sugar beets, saying
that the Agriculture Department had not adequately assessed the environmental
consequences; 95 percent of the sugar beets in the United States are genetically
Faced with a WTO
judgment on the one hand and a reluctant public on the other, the European
Commission has tried in recent years to walk a middle ground. It requires
countries to establish procedures for separating traditional and modified
crops, like maintaining certain distances between fields. Recent proposals give
regions increasing latitude to deny entry to such plants if they provide
scientific proof that the seeds could harm the environment, however.