Agricultural Asylum

“Non-GMO corn seeks asylum in France,” read the Agence France Presse headline (more or less, given my rusty French). The article went on to explain that on Tuesday, September 29, “non GMO ears of corn from Spain sought refuge in the arms of the French Embassy, petitioning for agricultural asylum.”

Somewhat disappointingly, this turned out to be a publicity stunt on the part of Friends of the Earth, complete with protesters wearing corn costumes and waving banners. Nonetheless, the story behind the stunt is fascinating.

AFP Corn protest

IMAGE: Friends of the Earth protesting on behalf of non-GM corn (AFP/Dominique Faget).

The only GM crop currently authorised for commercial cultivation in the EU is Bt maize, which has been engineered to resist the corn borer pest.  According to this report issued by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the EU member country with the largest amount of Bt maize under cultivation is Spain:

In 1998, the first planting of Bt corn (transgenic event Bt-176 by Syngenta, Basel) in Spain reached 20,000 hectares. The cultivated area remained fairly stable up to 2003, when the EU approved another Bt corn (transgenic event MON-810 by Monsanto, St. Louis). By 2006, over 53,000 hectares of Bt corn were grown in Spain—15% of the country’s total corn hectarage.

Corn and corn borer pest

IMAGE: Non GM corn and the corn borer pest (Wikimedia).

However, France (and several other EU countries, including Germany) have banned the cultivation of Bt corn MON-810, citing concerns “related to the long-distance dissemination of pollen, the disposition of the Bt toxin in the environment and its long-term effects on non-target organisms.” David Carpio Sanchez, “spokesperson” for the non-GMO corn, claimed that,

GM corn is grown in Spain without any precaution against contamination…. Faced with this threat to its survival, the corn is forced to flee the country. Better to become French than genetically modified!

Plants cannot (yet) legally claim asylum, but the idea that corn might seek to change its citizenship for fear of inter-species persecution is a perfect illustration of the logical absurdity built into the (very necessary) project of plant health management. The problem is that while national governments possess the legislative authority to regulate plant movement, plants and their pollinators tend to observe biological borders, rather than state sovereignty.

So, on the one hand, you have plant movement controlled through many of the same legal mechanisms that apply to humans: plant passports, plant repatriation, and plant quarantine. (In the UK, much of this legislation is managed by the fantastically named Natural England.)

Meanwhile, the plants themselves are merrily cross-pollinating, and extending or shifting their “natural” range across national borders in response to climatic or environmental conditions, frequently in direct contravention of the laws governing their movement by humans.

The use of legal devices to enforce biological barriers is, of course, at the heart of quarantine regulations. Perhaps one outcome of this autumn’s “Landscapes of Quarantine” design studio could be draft legislation to establish a protocol for international agricultural asylum?

For a more practical exploration of the challenges involved in enforcing plant quarantine, look out for a forthcoming interview (to be posted here and on BLDGBLOG) with the Plant Health Protection Officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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