Icelanders are beginning to protest more forcefully against import of genetically modified food, leading the government to tighten regulations.
“We are the only European country that does not require food to be labelled if it contains genetically modified organisms,” Johannes Gunnarsson, chair of the Consumers’ Association in Iceland told IPS. “And of all European countries, it is Iceland that buys most from the U.S. — products such as breakfast cereals and baby food.
“Consumers must have the right to choose, and to do so they must have the right information,” he says. “If there are no rules regarding which products contain GM foodstuffs, the consumer has no choice. We have talked to the last three environment ministers about the situation but, although they are sympathetic, nothing is done.” Until now.
Iceland passed a law on marketing and general release of genetically modified organisms in 1996, and since then several regulations have been introduced on that basis. The measures followed a European Directive in 1990. But no steps were then taken in line with the more recent 2001 Directive.
Sigridur Audur Arnardottir, lawyer for the Environment Minister, says new regulations based on the new Directive have finally been written. “This is being sent out for comments and should be ready for implementation in February,” she said.
“The new regulation will update the previous ones but will be based on the Cartagena Protocol on biological safety,” Sigurdur Thrainsson from the ministry said. “It will thus correspond to the 2001 Directive.”
Another regulation, he said, will focus on a related regulation from 2003 that seeks to implement the Cartagena Protocol. “The two regulations will come out about the same time.”
The Cartagena Protocol aims to protect biological diversity from potential risks of trans-boundary movement of genetically modified organisms — or living modified organisms (LMO) as they are called in the Protocol.
“Iceland has signed but not yet ratified the Cartagena Protocol, but intends to ratify it in the near future,” said Thrainsson.
Early last year, European consumers voiced concern that food produced from animals fed with GM foodstuffs was not so labelled. Two European regulations have been written on this. But Helga Palsdottir from the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, who wrote the regulation that is currently being reviewed, says that regulations on traceability and labelling have not been translated into Icelandic.
“If it is genetically modified, it must be labelled,” says Gunnarson. “Most animal feed in Iceland comes from the USA, where there are no regulations on GM labelling.”
GM food is not the only issue. A company ORF has been developing growth factors from transgenic barley for use in cancer and stem cell research. These are greenhouse-grown, but two proteins have been grown experimentally outdoors in Gunnarsholt, South Iceland. One is for the ORF’s own use, while the other is for industrial purposes.
Barley is the only cereal crop grown in Iceland. “But there is no danger of cross-fertilisation between experimental barley and cultivated barley or related grasses,” says ORF co-founder Bjorn Larus Orvar.
Gunnar A. Gunnarson from Tun, an organic certification organisation, is not so sure. “Where is the proof that no cross-fertilisation can exist,” he says. “It cannot be excluded that wild or domestic animals will not break into the enclosure and thus carry fragments of transgenic material away with them.”
In the United States, he said, “a number of major companies that are working on genetic engineering for pharmaceutical purposes use plants like tobacco, which are never used for food or animal feed, for genetic modification, to avoid possible contamination.”
ORF leases its land from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which also has its headquarters in Gunnarsholt, and cultivates the tall Deschampsia beringensis (Bering’s tufted grass) and Festuca rubra (Arctic fescue) nearby for re-vegetation purposes.
Is there a risk of cross-pollination between the transgenic barley and the grasses? “Not a chance,” says Magnus Johannson from SCS. “Pollen from barley in Iceland and other northern climes only lives for 24 hours. Iceland is a very safe place for such experimentation.”
He emphasises that ORF only rents land from them — cultivation of transgenic barley has nothing to do with the SCS