The European network of GMO free regions

Maria Grazia Mammuccini, Navdanya International

In recent years, regional commitment has been fundamental to avoiding the spread of GM agricultural cultivations in Italy. Almost all regions in our country have stood up against GM crop cultivation and, through an alliance with social, environmental and economic anti-GMO networks, they have contributed in determining Italy’s choice relating to agricultural policies which, even at the European level, remained always strongly against the introduction of transgenic cultivations.

Regions also played a fundamental role in Europe in respect to regulations related to GM crop cultivations directly through the Network of GMO Free European Regions. As such, institutional choices have matched citizen opinion, with a vast majority having always stood against GMOs, remaining strongly attached to an agri-food system born out of culture and local traditions, allowing for the expression of an enormous heritage in both wine and food renowned worldwide.

In 2000, Tuscany was the first region to adopt a law which prohibited the cultivation of transgenic crops in its territory, simultaneously achieving a system of integrated checks between agricultural, environmental and health related aspects supported by public sector scientific institutions independent from the multinationals’ system. This choice was motivated by the peculiarity of Tuscany’s territory, the 90% of which is made up of hills and mountains and where agricultural firms are predominantly small-scale. It is here that the industrial agricultural model witnessed a crisis even sooner than other areas, proving its failure not only from an environmental perspective but more importantly from an economic and social one. Beginning from the 70s, the lack of
satisfactory incomes led to a progressive withdrawal from the countryside and a reversal of this trend only came about with a shift towards an agricultural model that was more suited to Tuscany’s reality. This shift began in the mid-nineties, with the return to agrarian systems tailored around local production and consumption, respect of food sovereignty and of rural customs and to the promotion of biodiversity, with the adoption of a law, in 1997, for the protection of local species and varieties.

These results provided the chance to build a sustainable agricultural model as an alternative to the industrial one with GMOs as its ultimate expression, opening the way for initiatives of wider scope than a regional one opening the way to the creation in Tuscany of several international initiatives, such as the International Commission for the Future of Food and Agriculture and the European Network of GMO-free Regions and Local Authorities; such initiatives further strengthened a broad based movement between Institutions and civil society cooperating to protect the environment, health and rural economy.

The need to initiate a common action between different European regions on the issue of GMOs in agriculture became apparent during 2003 when, after the release of the EU regulatory scheme which in practice ended the moratorium period for the authorization of new GMOs in Europe, the European Commission ratified the principle of coexistence between conventional and transgenic cultivations, reducing it to the individual choice of farmers, hence limiting national and regional political action on a subject that was far from having reached a conclusive agreement over the possible side effects of such biotechnological applications.

This move entailed a risk for all those areas where, much like Tuscany, the agricultural policies had turned towards the promotion of the area’s own agrarian and food identities, recovering the vast heritage of local varieties, counting on organic cultivations and promoting agriculture’s multifunctional role as an activity that can protect and give value to the environment; this shift concerned many regional governments that had invested in this strategy for years, through both their own and European financial resources. The introduction of GMO products would have once again put forward an opposite model of agriculture strongly oriented towards homogenization of agrarian cultivations and food with a direct and indirect impact on the income of farmers and on European agri-food networks.

The other fundamental risk that many European regions had identified was how to apply coexistence while guaranteeing the precautionary principle within the rich variability of European rural territories, both in terms of production systems and size of farms, not over 10 hectares in most cases. If in addition one were to take into account a combination of gene transfer through pollens along with the possibility of accidental presence of GMOs in the fields and inadvertent contaminations, the picture would be so complex to actually make it impossible for the precautionary and prevention principle to be respected together with the application of industrial coexistence.

Given these considerations, the regions of Tuscany and Upper Austria were the first to identify the possibility of an initiative originating from the local context, launching a political platform for allowing European regions the choice to keep their territories GMO-free, implementing the precautionary principle and keeping in line with their own peculiar economic and environmental features. These regions had in fact already developed a distinct sensitivity on the issue which had materialized in regional regulations that excluded transgenic crop cultivation.

On 4th of November 2003 eight European regions aligned with Tuscany and Upper Austria to support a hearing over the issue of GMOs and coexistence within agrarian production at the European Parliament. An initial common bill was drafted around a few fundamental tenets: clearly identifying responsibility in the event of contamination; maintaining seeds free from contamination and, most importantly, ensuring the possibility of keeping regional territories which had invested towards quality and environmental sustainability of agricultural production GMO-free.

A milestone for the network was the February 2005 Conference in Florence, where 20 regions signed the Bill of Regions and Local European Authorities on the issue of coexistence between GMOs, conventional and organic agriculture, known as the “Florence Bill” which to date is the document to undersign in order to join the network.

With the “Florence Bill” Regions identified a number of fundamental principles for their political and governmental action in respect to GMOs:
– To safeguard areas meant for certified quality production such as products of origin, organic productions as well as areas subject to binding provisions for biodiversity conservation, and to acknowledge the possibility for Regions to preserve their territory as
GMO free
-To ensure the principle that breeding seeds be free from any contamination
-To safeguard biodiversity through conservation and enhanced value of local varieties and species and to avoid that such heritage become object of patents
-To ensure that procedures allowing GM varieties be subordinated to the principle of precaution and prevention and to the assurance that concrete positive effects would exist for consumers and for the broader common good.
-To envision a system of sanctions, in the case of coexistence, which defines costs and responsibilities of direct and indirect damages for those who caused them according to the principle that polluter pays.

On the basis of these fundamental objectives the Network of GMO-free Regions, aside from giving rise to a strong political-institutional alliance, also set in motion a technical – scientific sharing of acquired knowledge, availing itself also of the Network of Independent Scientific Labs that was created at the European level, allowing it to put forward amendments and corrections to
documents during their drafting stage at the level of European Institutions’ political bodies and to act as an direct interlocutor of European Institutions (Commission, Parliament, Committee of Regions) and of other organs (Assembly of European Regions – ARE, Copa-Cogeca, NGOs and professional Associations).

Together with the Regions several other local authorities, even if less structured, spoke out on the subject with different modalities according to each country; at present many provinces and municipalities in Europe have declared their territory GMO free, thus greatly contributing to the strengthening of the institutional network.

The creation of relationships and alliances between institutional networks and networks of citizens was particularly important especially in the most delicate stages of the debate and in framing the choices regarding GMOs within European institutions. The network of European GMO free regions took part with its own representatives in many of the initiatives of the European network
against GMOs and viceversa, each time identifying common and shared objectives, hence making each other’s political action more effective.

Within the institutional-movement relations, particularly relevant was the signing in 2007 of a declaration of intent based on the common principles related to the prohibition of GMO cultivations and the promotion of biodiversity and local production, between the Network of GMO Free Regions and the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture headed by Vandana Shiva, which brought together an international network of movement leaders, scientists and experts in sustainable food systems.

The new European Union Recommendation of July 2010 granted more flexibility to the Member states in adopting coexistence provisions that, taking into account the environmental conditions at the local, regional and national level, provide the possibility to rule out GMO cultivation from large areas of their territories. This choice represents an important step forward and is also surely the result of cohesive political action between local institutions and movements which have progressed
during these years.

Today, 55 Regions have joined the European Network headed by Paolo Petrini, the Minister of Agriculture for the Marche Region, who was also chosen in view of the commitment the region has always maintained against GMOs. Recently Regions have strongly demanded a European brand to offer consumers a guarantee on products being GMO free both for the agri-food productive
chains and so to avail of non biotech feeds on the market. The commitment and primary goal of the Network remains the introduction of a legally recognized state of GM- free areas. Until today it hasn’t in fact been possible to obtain this through regional and local regulatory acts and, despite the new European Union Recommendation of July 2010, a recent case in Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy revealed the legal uncertainty that many European Regions, farmers and citizens still find
themselves in.

It is instead paramount for everyone to ensure the fundamental democratic principle of freedom to choose governmental policies related to agricultural and rural territory in different European Regions, based on the principle of food sovereignty and security for all citizens.

The Italian Network of GMO-Free Organizations

Luca Colombo, Italy

The issue of GMOs in Italy has not all been negative: GMOs have provided a useful tool through which society can react to the dispossession of its food rights. Italy is a good example of this. The country has witnessed the rise of a widespread awareness, a convergence of social and economic interests and institutions that have stood up together to defend a notion of authentic agriculture and food. The response to transgenic cultivations has been based on four pillars: building consensus through exchange of available information, establishment of a heterogeneous and majority social bloc, capacity for dialogue and exchange with national and territorial institutions, and defense of the territory through the mobilization of local authorities.

The issue of GMOs has in fact given rise to a phenomenon of active resistance in defence of a food culture rooted in farmers’ knowledge and in the essences flavours of the surrounding countryside.

An attitude that has revolved around a logic that refutes a flawed technology and the totalitarian paradigm which wants to impose it, leading to very clear outcomes: in Italy, not one hectare is cultivated with GMOs, there is a limit otof open field transgenic crops testing, secondary access routes for GMOs (like seed contamination) are kept under check by customs authorities and agricultural institutions. The food industry and organized distribution networks have adopted strict policies to exclude transgenic ingredients from the foods they sell, citizens are well informed, aware and strongly pitted against their presence in both field and plate. To date, GMOs are only present in transgenic soya imports that end up hidden in livestock feed.

According to the European Commission- sponsored Eurobarometer, 76% of Italian citizens say they are concerned about and are against GMOs. Food preferences have been accepted as an individual right and have guided political and economic choice, particularly at the local level, resulting in the defence of existing food, wine, agricultural, environmental, financial and cultural
systems. Italy was also one of the first to introduce basic norms on which to launch socially agreed choices over what to eat and how to grow food.

Over the course of 15 years, as a result of transgenic aggression, a large number of organizations with varied affiliations have increasingly found common ground in the fight against GMOS. One such example was the call to uproot fields and compensate corn farmers who had unknowingly sown plots of GM contaminated grain so as to prevent a spread of contamination.

What began as short-term alliances have gradually grown in strength geared towards building a perspective of agri-food systems’ development based on quality, territorial, social and environmental sustainability, and GMO-free.

In 2007 Italy held a nation-wide consultation where the GMO issue was raised in the broader context of agri-food development; this was seen as an opportunity to define a new basic agreement through which Italian society at all levels could shape the future of food, including production and consumption on which individual and collective survival are based. The consultation was sponsored by GMO Free-ItalyEurope, a coalition of 32 organizations coming from the conventional and organic agricultural world, artisinal and retail production, environmental and consumer activism, culture and international solidarity and cooperation. Such a coalition would have been unlikely if the threat posed by GM crops hadn’t facilitated the dialogue between organizations with different roles, social identity and cultural and political foundations which at times had even been in conflict with one another.

Such a convergence between agricultural organizations (the two largest professional organizations in terms of members and the largest and most representative organic association all joined the Coalition) and environmental and consumer associations, to mention a few of the key stakeholders, would have been inconceivable only 20 years earlier, when these groups were confronting each other over issues such as the use of chemicals in agriculture or quality and price of food. Instead, the testing ground for this alliance came precisely on the organic issue through the mobilization in Europe to defend organic agriculture from the introduction of a GMO tolerance threshold of 0.9%, which followed the provisions for labelling conventional foods. This led to the extraordinary result of the European Parliament’s vote which gave its blessing to the technical zero contamination, later voided in the European Council (with Italy voting against).

The resistance against GMOs, recognized as a common threat, thus generated a valuable unifying element, contributing to emphasize the commonality of interests and sensibilities spread across the country and bringing together a wide and varied social fabric that had otherwise been extremely fragmented.

The national consultation was successful in providing civil society with 2 months of debate where citizens could participate directly in a discussion on agri-food issues. The consultation of autumn 2007 saw a proliferation of initiatives in the area with hundreds of meetings, conventions, seminars, exhibitions, cultural and food and wine events spread across big cities and small rural counties, during which citizens had an occasion to get informed, speak up and finally express their preferences and expectations in respect to the agri-food development model the country should establish. Such preferences could be recorded through a voting card similar to that used during referendums on which people were asked their “signed-vote” on questions such as “Do you want food and its quality to be the tenets of a sustainable and innovative development, made up of people and territories, health and quality, founded on biodiversity and GMO free?”

Do you want development to be sustainable and innovative, centred on people and territories, biodiversity, health and quality food and GMO free?

This was basically an attempt to gather the beliefs of people and communities far beyond the GMO issue, envisioning the overall development trajectory of the country, the logics through which political and economic decisions are made, the role of social and political representation, participatory democracy and social participation.

This initiative involved several months of planning, of coalition building, organizational definition and meetings with the institutional and political world, industry, research and media which continued even during the course of the Consultation: talks were held with the Presidents of the Houses of Parliament, with Government representatives, with majority and opposition parties, with the Heads of regional Councils, with the Directors of major newspapers and television channels.

In this respect, Italy has put in place a democratic experiment: if food has been the benchmark to verify if and how a wide consultation could become an incubator for decisions, this deliberation model proved viable and replicable on equally crucial issues such as choices over energy or social status. In their own peculiar manner, this is what several other countries are broadly experimenting with in the world’s North and South through citizen committees, coordination conferences, civic juries, and workshops on “future scenarios” or referendums to grasp and synthesize the diversity of widespread interests. This experience can also be read under another key: the Italian battle over the GMO issue represents one of the most coherent and apparent manifestations of the pursue of food sovereignty inspired by the freedom to choose what to grow and eat, recognizing in this
inspirational principle of political and productive action an element of re-appropriation of a population’s food destiny.

The Consultation’s experience has produced a positive inertia that has been useful to preserve Italy’s GMO free status, though it has also suffered some setbacks caused by individualistic interests, battles for leadership and visibility that should be remembered and accounted for. Now, mobilization gathers around a so-called “Anti-transgenic Task Force” which intervenes in occasion of events or circumstances that call for decisive action. An example of such initiatives was offered in 2010 by illegal planting of transgenic corn in Friuli, in the North East of Italy: Italy was faced with an attempt to forcefully introduce cultivation of MON 810 corn on a few hectares of land by some farmers who made it their mission to allow the entry of biotech crops. The challenge was
taken up by the anti-transgenic social front which turned it into a national case causing the awakening of agricultural institutions and provoking a boomerang effect: though with great delay, the transgenic fields were seized, the crop put under quarantine, the farmer criminally convicted and subject to fines totalling 25.000 Euros. 52 social organizations in Friuli passed a proposal for a regional law, largely shared and voted for by the regional council in 2011, thus sanctioning the Friuli territory’s position of not being open from then on to GMO cultivation.


Maria Grazia Mammuccini headed the Region of Tuscany’s Agricultural Research Agency from 1995 to 2010 during which she was responsible for the support of and cooperation with the Network of European GMO free Rgions and the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture. Founding member and Vice-President of Navdanya International, and Coordinator of the Scientific Committee of the Italian Foundation for Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture

Luca Colombo, Coordinator of the Italian Foundation for Research in Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture and president of the GMO Free-Italy/Europe. Since 2001 has led the campaign against GMOs, first with Greenpeace and subsequently in the Foundation for Genetic Rights

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