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Frankenfood or Global Famine Solution:
  Addressing GMOs in Austria and New Zealand

  With Europeans recalling a history of Nazi eugenics programs decades ago to recent outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease, frankenfoods present at least a superficial scare for contemporary Austrians. Elsewhere, with a strong agriculture history and economy and a rich tradition of social mobilization against community threats from nuclear weapons to food irradiation, it is not surprising that 35,000 New Zealanders recently marched through the streets of Aukland in a Greenpeace-organized rally to support a New Zealand free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food chain and ecosystem. Together, Austria and New Zealand present fascinating case studies in two similar cultures’ approaches to the presence of GMOs in their societies. Examining GMOs, their benefits and their risks is essential for understanding nations’ responses to them. Understanding Austria’s and New Zealand’s political features—political culture, economic structure, federal and supra-national legislative interventions, social attitudes and civil society responses, trading partners and relationships, and biotechnology traditions and contemporary activities—will help understand why GMOs are both a critical topic in global trade and national sovereignty debates, and a subject of more than a moderate amount of fear.

  To help understand the controversy surrounding GMOs, it is critical to understand what they are, as well as their benefits and risks. SFU Biology Professor Zamir Punja was recently awarded the Sterling Prize for research into controversial subjects (Punja 2003, 5). Before returning to academia, Punja worked in industry developing genetically modified strains of carrots and ginseng. The Sterling Award recognizes work that “challenges complacency and that provokes controversy or contributes to its understanding” (“2003 Sterling Prize : Champion of Genetically-Modified Plants Honored” 2003). Punja’s work—and its recognition—reflect the significance of the controversy surrounding an area with much fear yet with a growing amount of scientific data that can allay that fear. As opposed to non-genetic manipulation of crops that has been going on for thousands of years, Punja describes genetically modified (GM) foods as those coming from crops whose genetic structures have been altered using recombinant DNA methods to achieve a “novel trait” (Punja 2003, 5) to improve the crop’s ability to ward off pests, viruses or fungi; to reduce costs; to improve its nutritional value with added vitamins and nutrients (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 42); to increase resistance to drought, cold and disease (Kruszewska 1998, 15); to improve yields or to be resistant to herbicides (Punja 2003, 5), thus improving environmental protection (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 42). Monsanto, for instance, produces a herbicide called Roundup and a companion GM strain of canola called Roundup Ready Canola that is immune to their herbicide, which allows for better crop management, increased yields and lower costs (Monsanto Company 2003). By genetically modifying feed animals, researchers hope to better “treat animal disease, improve characteristics, [and] increase productivity” (Kruszewska 1998, 15).

  Obviously, reduced agricultural costs and increase yields and nutritional value have positive implications for global food crises and the myriad of social, economic and political problems that are consequences of hunger and malnutrition—making GMOs a tempting intervention. However, ActionAid, an anti-poverty NGO, claims that only “1% of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers in poor countries” (Brown 2003) because agribusiness needs to recoup high development costs from farmers who can pay for GM seeds, so the GMO economic model may not currently ease levels of hunger in the world. Further, proponents argue that GM crops do not necessarily spoil some mythical idealized pristine and harmless ecosystem we may currently live in; they argue that nature is far from benign as it is (“The year of the triffids” 1997). So while GMOs have the potential to address global hunger, current marketing decisions may themselves impede those efforts.

  There are, however, numerous criticisms of GMOs, which fall into a few categories: spiritual and moral, health and safety, environmental preservation, and socioeconomic. As with many genetic developments in recent decades, people view tampering with nature as immoral. Prince Charles reflects this view: GM production “takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone” (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 43). Health and safety concerns are also significant. GM crops with an antibiotic resistance gene were able to transfer that gene to a fungus, introducing the possibility that genes inserted into GMOs may transfer into the human population (Kruszewska 1998, 15). GM plants can produce new proteins that may cause allergies in humans. In fact, when a gene from a Brazil nut was transferred into a GM soyabean to improve its nutritional value, those allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to the GM soyabean, though luckily this was discovered during product testing (“The year of the triffids” 1997). Health and safety enforcement methods and funds in Europe are uncertain, leading to meaningful concern about implementing technological change before properly planned and funded regulatory systems are in place (Roe 1998, 16). So there is potential for GMOs to cause health problems in the population.

  Objections based on environmental preservation are also poignant. Once GMOs are introduced into the natural environment, they cannot be recalled (Kruszewska 1998, 15), meaning that we cannot retract the entire presence of GMOs if in the future we discover something dreadful. Kruszewska also explains that GMOs with new genes may have an advantage over native plant species, leading to their demise (through pesticide and herbicide use, for instance) in the face of a new generation of supercrops, leaving agricultural corporations and farmers with the power to determine current and future genetic varieties (another moral issue worth debating). GMOs could replace natural species and affect the plants and animals depending on them, thus altering the local biodiversity. Barbara Prammer, Austrian Consumer Protection Minister banned Monsanto’s GM maize in 1996 because scientific studies indicated that it “can damage useful insects such as butterflies” (“Austria bans altered maize; cites potential harm to insects” 1999, 15). Also, official UK trials released in October, 2003 proved that some GM crops damage wildlife (Mathiason 2003).

  There are other environmental criticisms of GMOs. Introducing non-native species into a bio-region can be catastrophic: the Nile Perch was introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1960s, destroying over 200 native species in the lake. Further, no one can predict the long term effect of GMOs on our environment without testing them by putting them into our environment itself because we cannot create closed system testing scenarios that include all of the variables of our whole ecosystem. Also, GMOs can spread, mutate and pass their genetic structure to other unintended related species, and while plants naturally develop their own poisons to discourage animals from eating them, transferring genes to other plants could then poison humans (“The year of the triffids” 1997). The Triffids article details another risk. GM crops may encourage resistance in pests faster than otherwise since farmers could use pesticides far more than merely sporadically since their crops are now immune to the sprays. While Monsanto recommends planting 4% of field space with traditional seed to allow insects to interact with non-GM crops to reduce increasing mutation rates, studies have shown that mutation still occurs up to 1000 times faster than theoretically predicted. Ultimately, to avoid the risks of GM crops, organic agriculture with proper crop rotation and mixed farming methods that address weeds and pests can improve agricultural yields and reduce costs. But this decidedly low-tech solution is not being promoted by global agribusiness.

  Pollack and Shaffer (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 43) introduce several socioeconomic criticisms of GMOs. These include objections to increased profits and centralization of global agribusiness at the expense of small farmers (and the resulting enlarging size of farms that can be achieved with the economies of scale offered with GMO use), as well as objections to the increasing monopoly of seed technology and food becoming an intellectual property. Also, in an era of global trade harmonization, the sovereign right of a nation to regulate food production can be interpreted as a non-tariff trade barrier that could impede its ability to trade while protecting and exercising its own sovereignty. Further, Percy Schmeiser knows well his socioeconomic disadvantage when Monsanto sued the Saskatchewan farmer because when they trespassed on his property to determine whether he had their Roundup Ready canola, the company discovered their GM strain, even though Schmeiser claims it blew onto his property, something seeds have been doing for thousands of years. Monsanto won the suit and has financially crippled the farmer (Schmeiser 2003). So while GMOs present some tangible and attractive benefits to global society, there are also some valid criticisms.

  Because of the great uncertainty about the social value of GMOs, many nations have motivated, active participants in the debate. To understand Austria’s history and approach to GMOs within their country it is essential to explore the EU's approach to GMOs and its relationship with Austria. Pollack and Shaffer (Pollack and Shaffer 2000) explore the EU's paradigm within the context of examining the trade difficulties that exist between it and the United States. The authors examine how the American context is focused on industry self-regulation and recognizing scientific bases for government regulations, and being more open to new technologies (44)—in fact, in 1997 the US Food and Drug Administration required to be merely notified that about 3,000 GM field tests were to be conducted (Grossman and Endres 2000, 421)—plus, there is little consumer concern over GM foods (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 47). In contrast, the EU GMO history in the last 15 years has focused on political bodies examining the GMO producer-supplied risk assessments before granting EU approval leading then to additional approval required by each member state (44). The EU focus is on food safety in the products themselves and in the processes involved in developing them, including considering the “ethical and social concerns as well as health and environmental ones” (47); food production process is not a regulatory focus in the USA. Since 1998, the EU has had a de facto moratorium on approving the introduction of new GM varieties (48), leading to great concern among agribusiness in the USA as well as EU corporations, two of which even moved their research facilities to the USA (41). The EU moratorium developed after enacting 1997 laws requiring GMOs to be labeled (Roe 1998, 16): clearly, from the USA’s point of view, this was a political response with no scientific basis to justify the ban, especially after 15 years of EU research found no scientifically-verified risks (European Commission Research Directorate-General 2001, 1). Roe adds that in the late 1990s, eastern European member states were more concerned with economic concerns than GMOs while central European members were moving to harmonize national legislation with the EU's (Roe 1998, 16). Further, because of the considerable “spillover” of pollution and products between member states, there is a high degree of legitimization for the EU to develop harmonized environmental and product standards (Grossman and Endres 2000, 385). So the 1990s saw a significant movement in the EU to develop a political response to GMOs.

  Harmonization has become a key theme in the global GMO debate. Nations may no longer have the right to develop their own criteria for banning, labeling or promoting GMO cultivation or sale if they or their trading block also sign trade treaties that are designed to improve free trade. If free trade means no barriers to trade, or at least common standards of trade regulation, then nations must harmonize regulations. But when different paradigms of regulation clash, scientifically-based in the USA versus public policy-based in the EU, there needs to be reconciliation. While science clearly has a role in the harmonization of regulations, corporate self-regulation and the rejection of community views and wishes don’t necessarily have to happen. Since science cannot predict future effects of GMOs on ecosystems, citizens should have the right—reflected by the involvement of EU political bodies in determining regulations—to express their stake in the future. In fact, citizens who view social risk as significant as well as technical research see public policy “social risk assessment as a necessary requirement for establishing socially responsive regulations” (Grant 2002, 130). Until there is global harmonization on GMO regulations with criteria all can accept, there will be competing policies resulting in divisions between trading blocks, like between the NAFTA community and the EU, as well as between the EU and member states. Currently the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization have been working to develop international food safety standards and the WTO has encouraged nations to develop scientifically-based standards (Pollack and Shaffer 2000, 46), thus betraying a bias towards the USA and against national or citizen interest to be acknowledged let alone accommodated and codified. So while there is a move towards global regulatory standards, we are far from a respected global compromise.

  Austria has been part of a number of shifting blocks of EU member states that have at various times banned or required labeling of certain GMOs after the EU itself has approved such strains. Austria banned GM maize from the Novartis corporation in late 1996 (“Austria bans altered maize; cites potential harm to insects” 1999, 15). In 1997, 1 million Austrians  (out of a population of less than 8 million) signed a petition to ban all GM foods (“Year of the triffids” 1997). Along with Luxembourg, Austria banned the production and import of all GMOs after the EU had approved GM soyabeans and maize (Roe 1998, 16). So Austria has not been shy to exercise a domestic veto of GMOs after they had achieved EU sanction.

  Explaining Austria’s actions requires examining a number of features about Austrian economic and political society. There are "practically no commercial activities in the field of modern agribiotechnology due to a very strong influence of anti-gene technology pressure groups and associated media coverage" despite the presence of 18 agribiotechnology research and development facilities and institutes (Doblhoff-Dier 2002, 14). Sixty Austrian biotech companies, financed roughly by half by each of industry and federal/state authorities, account for merely 1.6% of Austria’s GDP (14). Not only did the European Commission form the European Round Table on GMO Safety in October 2001 to, in part, overcome the prejudices and polarization that has existed in the GMO debate (European Commission Research Directorate-General 2001, 1), but the Austrian government also expends much energy on education and public deliberation. The federal Ministry of Social Security and Generations maintains an information databank on GMOs with information on both sides of the debate (Doblhoff-Dier 2002, 15). The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture publishes science and technology periodicals and has formed a bioethics council which receives a great deal of media attention (15). The Federal Environment Agency, which is respected as a neutral body (it had been part of the Ministry of Environment, but was spawned into a government-owned limited liability company), disseminates biotechnology and gene technology safety information.

   Austria’s civil society is prominent in the debate as well. The OVP, one of Austria’s governing coalition partners, has organized a biotechnology forum and a bioethics conference (Doblhoff-Dier 2002, 15). In the educational realm, universities are a strong resource for high schools and teachers in expanding education about biotechnology issues (16). The Biotechnology Forum, the industry group, was founded by global agribusinesses Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, AgrEvo and the Austrian association of food industries (18). Consumer associations publish information on GMO safety and labeling issues while Greenpeace is highly active, and another environmental interest group, Global 2000 (part of Friends of the Earth International), maintains an information-rich anti-GMO website (19) and was partially responsible for the 1997 Austrian anti-GMO petition (“Friends of the Earth Austria 2003). Domestic and German-imported media have significant biotechnology coverage (Doblhoff-Dier 2002, 20-25).

   With all this activity in Austria debating GMOs, some significant social attitudes have emerged. The annual Eurobarometer surveys provide critical insight into not only EU and member state demographics, but also opinions and interest, and knowledge levels about a wide range of social and political issues. The 2002 Biotechnology Eurobarometer published in 2003 indicates that most Europeans are against GM foods, seeing them as not useful and too risky (Gaskell 2003, 1). Longitudinal studies demonstrate moderate to strong decreases in support for GM crops since the mid-1990s (2) and there is a 30-65% range in percentage of member state populations that reject all reasons to support GM foods, with Austrians in the lower half (4) perhaps due to concerted efforts at education and debate. Also significant is the fact that among all EU member states, Austrians account for the highest level of trust in environmental organizations regarding biotechnology issues (Directorate-General for Education and Culture 2000, 77). Additionally, a Eurobarometer study from 1997 indicated that “40% of respondents believe that religious authorities should be involved in the public policy discussions and decisions regarding biotechnology applications” (Grant 2002, 44). So with education and engagement, Austrians are addressing potential criticisms about acting out of irrational fear.

   Similar to Austrians, New Zealanders have a considerable stake in the GMO controversy. With a government that has been pursuing neo-liberalization for almost twenty years and an economy where agriculture and tourism figure prominently, the level of faith the rest of the world has in New Zealand’s exports and ecological integrity is a significant concern. A recent well-respected New Zealand Royal Commission Inquiry into Genetic Modification and a recent moratorium on introducing GMOs into their ecosystem demonstrate the nation’s willingness to address the controversy proactively. The resulting policy decisions reflect a government desire to compromise by proceeding with GMOs with caution while trying to protect organic and conventional agriculture and their unique and valuable ecosystem.

  New Zealand’s economy is significantly resource- and ecology-based. Beyond agriculture’s contribution to GDP, tourism generates significant foreign exchange investment in the country that markets itself as natural, clean and green (Sustainability Council of New Zealand 2003). Still, “two-thirds of export earnings come from agriculture, horticulture and forestry, which together account for 17% of GDP” (Fickling 2003). As well, New Zealand’s agriculture base is particularly sensitive to “invasive weeds and hybridization” since the amount of flora and fauna transplanted into the country over recent centuries now outnumbers native species; further, there has been a great deal of interbreeding between the two stocks of species (Fickling 2003), meaning the nation’s ecosystem has demonstrated a vulnerability to cross-breeding and mutating, perhaps with any introduced GM strains in the future.

  Since New Zealand has one of the most extensive neo-liberal regimes among democratic countries, having eliminated most agricultural subsidies, they need increasing food exports to justify and legitimize their economic policy (Campbell and Coombes 1999, 303). In opposition to this neo-liberalism is the green protectionist movement: maintaining certified standards that meaningfully distinguish organic food from conventional food (303). The green protectionist movement is similar to fair trade movements which do not depend on international trade agreements: consumers merely voluntarily pay a premium for products like coffee and chocolate so producers earn a living wage. No protectionist rules—non-tariff trade barriers—need to be enacted. New Zealand’s green barriers to introducing GMOs—exporting organic products—are “an attractive means of subverting WTO regulations” (308). As long as producers are able to maintain their organic certification, they can export premium organic crops. To maintain certification, they can merely choose to not purchase GMOs, and as long as New Zealand’s organic agricultural contribution to GDP is significant (especially with the premium people are willing to pay for organic products), they have an argument to protect their crops from GM infiltration. Fortuitously, organic production has expanded “in relation to conventional” production, giving more leverage to their goals to maintain organic certification and integrity (315). So New Zealand has been able to avoid GMO intervention partially from work on the consumer market front.

   The Royal Commission has established New Zealand’s government’s approach to GMOs. While GMO critics contend that the government has avoid its moral obligation to develop broad policy from which to make decisions, choosing instead to institute a GMO regulatory body that will assess each GMO producer’s proposal on an individual basis without any overarching philosophical guidelines. Assessing the risks and benefits of each GMO proposal without underlying philosophy of what is acceptable and what isn’t allows the government to develop policy over time based on the nature of the proposals it receives, thus allowing it the freedom to develop guidelines based on the reality presented to them: a distinctly reactive result to a proactive initiative started by the Royal Commission and moratorium. And now, they are moving ahead. New Zealand’s moratorium on introducing GM crops ended on October 29, 2003, oddly just weeks before the five-year EU moratorium that is set to expire in December, 2003 (Mathiason 2003).

  The New Zealand Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) is the body responsible for analyzing on a case-by-case basis whether to release a given GMO into their ecosystem (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2003b). The body is designed to be transparent and its decisions are subject to legal appeal. ERMA is responsible for enforcing the balance between enjoying “the opportunities of organic and conventional agriculture, while at the same time not closing the door to the contribution that GM may make to our way of life” (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2003b). The Royal Commission also asserted policy on legal liability issues if GM crops damage the financial viability of non-GM crops (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2003a) and on which and how GM products are to be labeled to promote informed consumer choice (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2003c). So New Zealand has established a potentially meaningful regulatory body, but it is not without its critics.

  As in Austria, New Zealand interest groups maintain websites rich with GMO information and campaigns. The Sustainability Council also has extensive research on their website for public consumption. They argue that ERMA should require GM producers to demonstrate that they can bear the financial burden of a legal liability claim and that ERMA should not operate on a case-by-case basis, but from a well-developed nation policy basis (Sustainability Council of New Zealand 2003). In addition to the information resources on their website, Greenpeace New Zealand has developed a campaign to stop the New Zealand government from supporting the USA’s WTO challenge of EU’s GMO moratorium (Greenpeace New Zealand 2003a), demonstrating the global interdependence inherent in the GMO debate. Also, consumer opinion is significant enough to encourage New Zealand’s largest grocery store to insist that its house brands are GM-free (Greenpeace New Zealand 2003b), a decision that Greenpeace promoted. So, as in Austria, interest groups play a significant role in New Zealand’s GMO debate.

  Additionally, The Royal Society of New Zealand presented a submission to the Royal Commission Inquiry into Genetic Modification. Their advice was to explore developing more safeguards over an indefinite time frame, with more consultation, and ensure that risk assessment went beyond merely the technical to “cultural, ethical and social issues and concerns at both the research and field trial levels” (The Royal Society of New Zealand 2003). They were also concerned with costs, minority disenfranchisement, concerns about intellectual property rights and the intangible yet essential societal cohesion inherent in public trust (The Royal Society of New Zealand 2003).

  Ultimately, there is great tension in the world surrounding the risks and benefits of introducing more GMOs into our ecosystem. There is no clear agreement on globally harmonized regulatory paradigms. There is great power imbalance between citizens and interest groups in nations seeking to maintain their sovereignty and global agribusiness that use trade deals as leverage for reforming how human beings eat, and who profits from this essential human activity. Austria and New Zealand teach us that civil society and government efforts to responsibly address public concerns while respecting the possibility of economic growth can lead to improved societal response to GMOs. As Zamir Punja’s award for meaningfully exploring controversial research can attest, the world still needs to do a great deal of work to arrive a stable approach to the presence of genetically modified organisms in our society.


“2003 Sterling Prize: Champion of Genetically-Modified Plants Honored,” http://www.sfu.ca/sterlingprize/recipients/punjanews.htm (October 17, 2003).

“Austria bans altered maize; cites potential harm to insects,” Journal of Commerce (New York), June 1, 1999, p. 15.

Brown, Paul. “GM crops of not benefit to poor, says ActionAid,” The Guardian (Manchester), May 28, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,965299,00.html (November 17, 2003).

Campbell, Hugh R., and Brad L. Coombes. “Green protectionism and organic food exporting from New Zealand: crisis experiments in the breakdown of Fordist trade and agricultural policies.” Rural Sociology. 64 (2): 302-319.

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Doblhoff-Dier, Otto. “Austria.” In Biotechnology: Educating the European Public, May 31, 2002.

European Commission Research Directorate-General, European Round Table on GMO Safety. GMOs: are there any risks? Brussels: October 9, 2001.

Fickling, David. “New Zealand to allow trials of GM crops as two-year ban ends,” The Guardian (Manchester), October 30, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1073641,00.html (November 17, 2003).

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Grant, Isaac E. Agricultural biotechnology and transatlantic trade: regulatory barriers to GM crops. New York: CABI Publishing, 2002.

Greenpeace New Zealand. “Inghams using GE animal feed,” http://www.greenpeace.org.nz/campaigns/ge/ (November 17, 2003).

_____ “Biggest NZ retailer says no to GE,” http://www.greenpeace.org.nz/news/news_main.asp?PRID=614 (November 17, 2003.)

Grossman, Margaret Rosso, and Bryan A. Endres. “Regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union.” The American Behavioral Scientist. 44 (3): 378-434.

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_____ “Ten things to know about genetic modification” http://www.gm.govt.nz/ten.shtml (November 17, 2003).

_____ “What are the Labeling Requirements for Genetically Modified Food?” http://www.gm.govt.nz/topics-liabilities.shtml  (November 17, 2003).

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Punja, Zamir. “GM Foods Have Not Caused a Catastrophe So Far,” Simon Fraser University News, October 16, 2003, p. 5.

Roe, Sarah. “Does legislation open the GM door?” The Bulletin (Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe), (Spring 1998): 16.

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Schmeiser, Percy. “Monsanto versus Schmeiser” http://www.percyschmeiser.com/ (November 13, 2003)

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“Year of the triffids,” Economist, April 26, 1997, p. 80-3.

Stephen Buckley
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