GM or not GM

C&I Issue 8, 2013

Seventeen years since the first commercial release of transgenic crops in North America, GM products remain the subject of much heated debate in Europe. Since 1996, there has been a 100-fold increase in the global use of GM, according to the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

So far, however, only one GM maize and one potato used for starch production – since withdrawn by BASF – have been approved in Europe.

As politicians fight it out in Brussels, where does this leave European policy, and what impact does it have on those countries looking at GM technology in the developing world?

‘Clearly, there is a major problem in the EU at the Council of Ministers and Parliament level, not at the approval stage,’ says Brian Heap, president of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). Between 2003 and 2012, 24 GM products were approved in Europe, and 27 in the US. All were commercialised in the US, but none in the EU.

In a report in June 2013, EASAC warns of the grave scientific, economic and social consequences of current EU policy towards GM crops ( ‘The EU is falling behind international competitors in agricultural innovation and this has implications for EU goals for science and innovation, and for the environment as well as for agriculture,’ Heap comments. He says the EU must ‘recalibrate’ its approach to GM crop regulation, taking account of the extensive evidence of safe use of these crops.

However, Andy Stirling of Sussex University, UK, argues that far from being over-restrictive, the history of European regulation could be considered to be ‘over-permissive’. ‘The reference to “falling behind” presumes there is just one direction of technological advance in this field – and that this is GM,’ he says. ‘This profoundly misunderstands the nature of innovation, which is at least as much a question of choosing appropriate orientations for advance, as of how fast to proceed in any one of them.’

And others welcome Europe’s caution. Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, Sussex, UK, believes a precautionary approach makes sense in the face of deep uncertainties, public concerns and contested politics. With the ‘pro’ v ‘anti’ discussions stuck in an unhelpful impasse, he points out that GM is not the only biotech solution on offer.

Divisions at the political level remain deep. For example, while Owen Paterson, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has come down firmly in favour, the Italian agriculture minister has said she wants a ban in Italy on cultivating GMOs. Nunzia De Girolamo says she will push for legislation even though it would mean violating European law.

As an EU member, Italy cannot block the sale of EU-approved GM seeds. The European Court of Justice confirmed in September 2012 that it is unlawful for a member state to ban cultivation of a GM crop that has been authorised at the EU level. It made its announcement after reviewing the case brought by GMO producer DuPont Pioneer against Italian authorities prevented the country’s farmers from using its GM seeds. The ECJ reached a similar decision in 2011 against France, judging that farmers had a right to cultivate approved GM crops.

Back in Brussels, three GM maize varieties for use in food and feed remain under discussion as a committee in June 2013 failed to reach a decision on their authorisation. An appeal committee is now considering the applications, two of which are for pest-resistant maize varieties developed jointly by Monsanto and Dow.

The third approval covers the pollen of Monsanto’s insect-resistant MON810 maize, the only GM crop grown commercially in Europe. The bid for approval followed a 2011 ruling by the ECJ that even small traces of the pollen in honey must receive EU authorisation before the product can be sold.

Five out of 27 EU member states grew MON810 maize on 129,000ha in 2012, according to data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Spain was the top producer, followed by Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Member states can invoke an EU safeguard clause enabling them to suspend the marketing or growth on their territory of EU-authorised GM. To date, seven EU countries have done so: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg, while Poland has announced restrictions.

In a bid to break past impasses, in 2011 the European Parliament approved an EU proposal for states to opt out of any EU-wide authorisation. But the plan disappeared back to the drawing board to iron out various legal issues. Several member states were concerned it would break rules on open markets. And green campaign groups argued that crops in countries that had not authorised GM could be contaminated by GM varieties grown in neighbouring countries.

‘The proposal is still on the table and is being refined at the moment,’ reports Huw Jones of Rothamsted Research, UK. ‘If it allows a way forward, then it could be useful in the short-term, even though I don’t agree with giving member states a non-scientific reason to opt out.’

Meanwhile, some observers worry that the EU’s treatment of GM is having repercussions outside the bloc. ‘Some developing countries have been hesitant to grow GM crops that have not yet been approved in Europe, out of concern that their products might not be able to be exported to the EU,’ says Heap.

His concern is shared by Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, US, and former head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The slow uptake of GM crops in African countries is partly down to technological intolerance, he says, much of which has been handed down by European anti-biotechnology activism. ‘This opposition, however vexatious, amounts to petty political mischief.’

Of the 28 countries growing transgenic crops, four (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan) are in Africa. Juma believes that GM technology would help Africa improve its indigenous crops. He cites examples such as work in Nigeria on a pest-resistant variety of the black-eyed pea and Ugandan research on a transgenic banana using genes extracted from sweet pepper (Capsicum annuum) to control a bacterial disease.

‘As the world’s food challenges increase, so must humanity enlarge its toolbox to include genetic modification and other technologies,’ he says. ‘But these techniques are not silver bullets. They must be part of a wider system of innovation that includes improving interactions between academia, government, business and farmers.’

In reality, writes Scoones, growing GM is a complex story with mixed impacts. While some farmers have benefited from GM crop technologies, others had bad experiences or were bypassed altogether. Take GM cotton grown by smallholders in India, China and South Africa. ‘GM crops only perform well in good varieties,’ Scoones says. ‘Seed start-up costs and technology fees are sometimes too expensive for poorer farmers, and major adopters are usually richer, with more land. Without support, credit and sustained backing, new technologies often fail.’

The question remains whether African countries will be able to move forward at their own pace – choosing or not choosing GM crops – or will their trading and political relationships with Europe make this choice for them? Many emerging countries are slowly developing the necessary legislative and regulatory requirements, says Heap. ‘African countries do not need Europe for GM,’ he points out. ‘They want GM crops for their internal use to feed their growing population and for intra-African country trade.’

While there is some action in Africa, what about the stalemate in Europe? The key to breaking the deadlock is public opinion, which influences national political debates and EU priority-setting, says Patrick Holden, director for the Sustainable Food Trust. Holden is not alone when he says he has found no evidence over the past 15–20 years to convince him that GM is going to deliver any long-term benefits.

Anti-GM groups claim that Europeans are overwhelmingly opposed to GM food and crops. Indeed, hostility from consumers was the main reason German chemical company BASF decided in January 2013 to stop producing GM crops for the European market. And a recent survey by agricultural organisation Coldiretti in June 2013 found that 76% of Italians were against GMOs – 14% more than in 2012.

However, proponents argue that although there is concern about GM, consumers report a low level of knowledge about GM food. Jones says public support is growing for investigating the science of GM, and is likely to shift further in favour. ‘There is such a mismatch between public concerns and the reality of the evidence that opinion will change quickly once the public sees the facts,’ Jones argues.

Jones is clear that all the evidence finds the benefits of GM technology are potentially huge, far outweighing any risks. There is no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety, he stresses.

While Holden disagrees, he’s clear that what’s needed to resolve this stand-off is ‘a transparent debate, accessible discussions without heat. That’s the way forward’.

Maria Burke is a freelance science writer based in St Albans, UK

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