Friday 10. April 2020
#142 - October 2011


Honey on dispute : The conflict on GMOs continues


A recent verdict from the Court of Justice of the European Union draw attention to the real difficulties of co-existence between genetically modified and non-modified products.


The struggle between those for and those against GMOs continues. The latest conflict has taken place in the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, and shows how this new technology is provoking significant resistance to its adoption in Europe. The broader context of the dispute is set by a large and sophisticated array of legal instruments, by scientific debate, and by rarefied, endless and politically driven international trade negotiations: the whole process is subjected to the keen pressure of environmentalist groups. Taken together, these elements make the GMO debate difficult to digest.


The facts of this specific case may appear almost amusing. But the far-reaching significance of the debate makes it deeply serious. A dispute had arisen between Mr Bablok, an amateur beekeeper, and the German State of Bavaria, which owns a number of plots of land where, in recent years, maize has been cultivated for research purposes. 500 metres from these plots of land, Mr Bablok produces honey, both for sale and for his own consumption. In 2005, maize and genetically modified  proteins were detected in the maize pollen harvested by Mr Bablok in his beehives. Very small amounts of maize, with modifed DNA, were also detected in some samples of the honey.


Mr. Bablok held that the presence of residues of genetically modified maize made his products unsuitable both for marketing and for consumption; he brought legal proceedings against the State of Bavaria before the federal German courts. The Bavarian Higher Administrative Court asked the Court of Justice of the EU, first, whether the mere presence in the products in question of genetically modified maize pollen entailed that those products required authorisation to be placed on the market.


The Court concluded that a substance such as pollen derived from a variety of genetically modified maize, which has lost its ability to reproduce and is incapable of transferring its genetic material , cannot be considered an GMO. Nevertheless the Court went on to hold that products such as honey and food supplements containing such pollen constitute foodstuffs which contain ‘ingredients produced from GMOs’ within the meaning of the regulation. As pollen is a standard component of honey, an ‘ingredient’, then honey comes within the scope of the regulation and must be subject to the authorisation scheme before being placed on the market. The Court observes that the authorisation scheme applies irrespective of whether the pollen is introduced into the honey intentionally or adventitiously.


Naturally, Mr. Bablok does not wish extra difficulties in selling his honey, and the authorisation scheme is clearly an administrative obstacle. He must include this information on the label, and sales may be reduced given the dislike of European consumers for GMO products. Mr Bablok's intention is precisely that the damage done to him should be acknowledged, so that the assumption that GMO and non-GMO products can coexist is shown to be flawed.

The case raises questions in three sensitive areas: the application of the precautionary principle, the role of scientific assessment, and the entire biological context of food production.

The Precautionary Principle requires that, where there are reasonable doubts, protection takes precedence over risk-taking: therefore risks must be carefully evaluated and tests must be carried out. In this way the precautionary principle requires the assessment of potential damage. This is the reason for field trials. Scientific assessment is crucial, but in this case it cannot be limited merely to confirming the presence or absence of genetically modified proteins. It must also clarify what levels are considered as adventitious, unintended.

It must always be remembered that food production takes place in open fields not in laboratories, and such open-air conditions cannot be fully controlled. It is this natural context that makes scientific assessment more difficult and renders due precaution more essential.


José Ignacio Garcia SJ


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