The future of GM crops in Europe
News Mar 12, 2010
GM crops have, for many years, been a source of controversy in the EU. After a 6 year effective moratorium on new approvals, a revised regulatory system finally began to function in 2004. However, since then, the only crops approved have been soy and maize varieties for import. Now, after a 12 year gap, and 13 years after the original dossier was submitted, a further crop has at last been approved for European cultivation. This is the Amflora potato variety, developed by BASF and to be grown purely for industrial processing.
Conventional potatoes, like nearly all crops, contain starch granules made up of two glucose polymers: amylopectin, a highly branched molecule, and amylose, which is linear. It is the amylose component which is responsible for the common behaviour of, for example, cornflour and wheat flour; including the setting of sauces on cooling and the staling of bread. This behaviour, known as retrogradation, is due to alignment of the linear amylose chains and is undesirable in many industrial applications such as paper coating.
Certain starches, such as so-called 'waxy' maize, contain little or no amylose, but others must be chemically modified to be useful in these specialised applications. The availability of Amflora potatoes means that such specialised starch will now be grown in Europe, providing economic benefits for local industry and farmers.
This approval is a significant breakthrough, coming as it does after so many years of stalemate in the EU. Since the lifting of the moratorium, a significant number of dossiers have been submitted, but all have been for import only. Even in these cases, the entrenched opposition from member states such as Austria, Greece and Italy meant that, despite consistent positive assessments by scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), there has never been a qualified majority of votes for approval by the Council.
In such cases, the system allows for the final decision to be made by the Commission which, until Amflora came along, had always taken the rational approach and approved the applications in line with EFSA recommendation. Not so, however, for this landmark application for a new crop actually to be planted in European soil. The then Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, had an opportunity to take the expected positive decision following an inconclusive vote by the Agriculture Ministers in 2007. He failed to do so, and the dossier was sent back to EFSA for further consideration, specifically regarding the presence of an antibiotic resistance marker gene.
This gene codes for resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin, which is used relatively infrequently in human medicine. Although there is a hypothetical risk of resistance being transmitted to disease-causing bacteria via micro-organisms in the gut, it is recognised that there is a vastly greater problem of resistance caused simply by the overuse of antibiotics and the failure of patients to complete courses of treatment. EFSA has come to the conclusion several times that the presence of the maker gene should not be a barrier to approval.
However, it has taken the formation of a new Commission for a science-based decision to be made. According to John Dalli, the new health commissioner, 'any delay in taking a decision now would have simply been unjustified', and the formal decision was made on 2nd March. This follows a commitment by Commission president Barroso to a more science-based approach to the issue, which included his decision to transfer responsibility for approval from DG Environment to Health. DG Environment has long opposed the spread of crop biotechnology in Europe, and a change of commissioner would in itself have been unlikely to alter that, given the strong influence of the environmental lobby throughout the DG.
It might be tempting now to believe that this important decision will have cleared the logjam and make the progress of further dossiers more assured. But things are never that simple in European politics. Opposition to the Commission decision has been predictably swift in coming with, for example, the Italian agriculture minister threatening a continuing fight by a number of member states, the expected protests from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and the headline 'Fury and EU approves GM potato' in the UK Independent.
Given this, the floodgates are unlikely to open any time soon. But in many ways this is the perfect product to be approved at this time. For one thing, it is not for food use, which immediately removes one major objection from activists. And potatoes as a crop are very unlikely to give rise to horizontal gene transfer, as propagation is via tubers rather than pollinated seed and there are no wild relatives of potatoes in Europe if any tiny amount of pollen was to be transferred outside a field. The one weak point has always been the presence of an antibiotic resistance marker gene, once common in GM crops but now seen as an outdated technology.
The other significant new factor in the equation is the Commission's intention to change the current system so that, although scientific assessments will still be undertaken centrally by EFSA, each member state will be able to decide whether to allow a crop to be grown on its soil. Full details will emerge later this year, but this seems a pragmatic decision, recognising the reality that certain countries are still viscerally opposed to GM crops, while others are far more welcoming. Spanish farmers, for example, have grown insect-resistance maize continually since the mid-90s, and Amflora is due to be grown in Germany, Sweden and the Czech republic.
Since the likelihood of decisive qualified majority voting in the medium term is slight at best, allowing member states to make their own decisions seems sensible. However, it is a significant step backwards in terms of integrated EU policy and a single agricultural market. If products are approved in one country, they may be effectively banned from import into another; the situation within Europe could become more like the current one between the EU and the USA.
For those who see the glass as half full, this situation may just allow the more rapid (or, at least, less slow) introduction of crop biotechnology into Europe and put pressure on those member states still resisting to see what their farmers might be missing and reconsider their decision. It would, for example, be fascinating to see how things developed in France. Generally thought of as anti-GM, the reality is that farmers in the south grew GM maize enthusiastically when permitted to do so. Given the importance of the farming lobby in France, it is difficult to believe that the government would resist pressure to follow the lead of other countries.
On the other hand, if the glass is half empty, the piecemeal introduction of GM crops in Europe may simply be too little, too late. Internal trade barriers could continue to keep the process a slow one. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, the new Commission deserves warm congratulations for resisting the green lobby and making a sensible and long-overdue decision.