What future for GM crops in Europe?

The decision by BASF to close down its production of GM crops operations in Europe prompts questions over whether Europe can afford to be a ‘GM-free continent’.

The debate over genetically modified (GM) crops may be stalled in the European Union’s Council of Ministers, but last week the private sector appeared to deliver its own verdict on the future of the technology in Europe.

BASF, a German chemical company, announced on 16 January that it will end production of GM crops for the European market and move its plant-science headquarters from Limburgerhof in Germany to the United States. It will also close other sites in Germany and Sweden, though it will maintain existing facilities in Belgium and Berlin.

“There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians,” says Stefan Marcinowski, a member of BASF’s board. “It does not make business sense to continue investing in products exclusively for cultivation in this market.”

BASF will discontinue the marketing of the Amflora potato, one of only two GM crops authorised for cultivation by the European Commission. This will leave Monsanto’s MON810 maize as the only GM crop authorised for cultivation and marketed in the EU. Environmental campaigners cheered the move as a vindication of European consumers’ rejection of the technology. “It’s not often that we share an analysis with BASF, but they’re right that there’s no demand,” says Mute Schimpf, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

But the biotechnology sector warned that Europe risks falling behind its global competitors because of “scaremongering and misinformation” about this emerging science, which changes the DNA of crops to make them more efficient. Werner Langen, a German centre-right MEP, says that the decision by BASF “shows that the patchwork of national regulations made in this field has made Europe an unattractive location” for GM research.

While authorisations of GM crops have increased steadily in other parts of the world, particularly the Americas, approval has been stalled in Europe for several years because of political opposition. Around 50 GM crops grown outside the EU have been authorised for import, mostly used for industrial use or animal feed.

National bans

Member states remain divided over the issue of GM crops. A blocking minority of countries – including Austria, Hungary, Poland and Greece – has refused to accept new authorisations for GM cultivation. This has irritated pro-GM countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK, which are eager to deploy the technology. The Commission has been able to authorise only these two crops for cultivation, and some member states have imposed national bans. These bans were eventually found to be illegal under single market rules.

Seeking a compromise, the Commission proposed allowing member states to enact their own national bans, with the implicit understanding that in exchange they would stop blocking new authorisations. But the proposal has remained stalled because the anti-GM states want to be able to ban the crops on the basis of environmental or health concerns. The Commission argues that this is not possible, because food cannot be deemed safe in one country but unsafe in another.

Environmental campaigners are urging the anti-GM states to stand their ground, saying it is reasonable to have different health concerns in different countries. “Europe is quite diverse, you have specific ecosystems in different member states,” says Schimpf. She is unaware of any other products that have different environmental concerns in different states, but says GM crops are unlike other products of concern because they can multiply and they enter the food chain.

Potential and concerns

GM crops have been around for 15 years, and to date no adverse health effects from approved strains have been documented anywhere in the world. European consumers are already eating meat from animals raised on GM feed imported into the EU, and no adverse health effects have been found. But environmental campaigners say not enough is yet known about the health effects, and more research is needed before they are embraced. “The EU needs to follow the precautionary principle,” says Schimpf.

Fact File

GM-sceptic Europeans

Last week’s announcement by BASF that it is abandoning its production of GM crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance – Europe does not like genetically modified crops.

A 2010 Eurobarometer survey found that 70% of Europeans think that GM food is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 59% say that such food is unsafe for their health. A 2003 government study in the United Kingdom found that only 2% of Britons would be happy to eat GM foods. So-called frankenfood, as the British tabloid press has dubbed them, have had a rough welcome in Europe. In December 2010 one million signatures calling for a ban on GM crops were delivered to the Commission as the first ‘citizens initiative’ created by the Lisbon treaty.

But Europeans are virtually alone in this staunch resistance to GM crops. In north and south America, genetically modified crops have been introduced into the food chain without anyone much noticing or caring. A 2006 study by the Pew Research Group showed that Americans remain largely unaware of the existence of GM crops, with only 40% having heard of them and only 26% believing they have eaten them. The majority of Americans say they do not have concerns about GM crops.

Public perception has translated into public policy. The EU’s two approvals of GM crops for cultivation do not match the more than 80 in the US and 36 in Brazil. China and India are also approving more GM crops, albeit more cautiously than in the Americas. The European Commission has tried to alleviate member state concerns about the crops by offering to let them opt out of EU authorisation, but the issue is stuck in the Council. Today 10% of the world’s arable land is growing GM crops. A report published by Friends of the Earth last year found that less than 0.06% of EU fields contain GM crops.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of EuropaBio attributes the better reception of GM crops in the United States to faster movement by the industry. “In the US, the technology was already there when the anti-GM movement came on people’s radar,” he says. “In the Americas there’s much greater faith in science as a tool for progress, and the food industry in the Americas has been very supportive of science.”

But according to Friends of the Earth, the increased focus in Europe is the result of work by non-governmental organisations to bring the issue to the public’s attention. “A lot of European consumers are concerned about the open questions of health with GM crops,” she says. “In north and south America they have no labelling system, and consumers are not aware of what’s going on.”

“We cannot ignore the massive opposition in Europe,” says Ladislav Miko, deputy director-general for the food chain in the Commission’s health department. “This is why we believe the issue needs more clarity and more public information.”

“People need to be convinced there are benefits for the normal citizen,” he adds. “If they think the benefit is just for farmers and companies, people won’t support that.”

But advocates of GM crops say that such hesitation is foolish when the potential of the technology to solve societal challenges is so large. “We have a rapidly increasing population, we have to produce more food and we have to do it more sustainably,” says Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, a director with EuropaBio, a pan-European biotechnology industry group. “The only way to do that is to produce more from the same amount of land. [GM crops] allow farmers to produce more yield per hectare.” He adds that more efficient crops mean less time spent tilling the land, translating to fewer CO2 emissions from farm equipment.

In Spain, the EU country that has embraced GM crops most enthusiastically, farmers have reported getting from 6% to 30% more yield by using Monsanto’s MON810 maize. Between 2010 and 2011, Spain saw a 27% increase in the acreage planted. Portugal, which started planting GM later, saw a 59% increase during that time.

Much has been made of the potential of GM crops to combat famine in Africa, and Bill Gates has been one of the leading advocates of the technology to help developing countries (see interview, Page 4). Strains of drought-resistant maize are currently being developed, as well as virus-resistant strains of staple crops.

But many groups and governments remain doubtful about the technology. Aside from the perceived uncertainty around health, campaigners are also concerned that the use of GM crops is giving rise to pesticide-resistant plants. Biotechnology companies have insisted that this trend is not linked to the use of GM crops, but is a normal problem encountered when crops are not properly rotated.

Ethical objections have also been raised to the practice of patenting the GM seeds. Farmers normally pay a one-time price for seeds, which they can then save and replant. But GM seeds are acquired through the payment of a licence fee for the intellectual property. This was the case for BASF’s Amflora potato. “It’s a democratic question – do we want to allow a few companies to control what we eat?” asks Schimpf.

GM-free continent?

But with the rest of the world increasingly embracing GM crops, is it possible for Europe to be a GM-free continent? That question is being asked at both a macro and micro level. Even if the anti-GM countries secure the right to enact national bans on environmental grounds, there are questions over cross-fertilisation from neighbouring countries. If Austria enacts a ban, the wind can carry seeds from neighbouring Germany, campaigners warn.

EuropaBio rejects this argument. “Political realism means we accept that the way forward is that some countries will choose to grow GM crops and some won’t,” says du Marchie Sarvaas. “They can exist as non-GM ‘islands’,” he says, adding that some farms grow GM crops alongside conventional crops and there is still no cross-fertilisation. “But Europe cannot determine what the people from whom they import grow, and that’s the challenge.”

This challenge has already been encountered. Last year the Commission was forced to end its zero-tolerance policy for imports, which barred a shipment from entering the EU if it contained any trace of a GM strain not authorised in the EU. This was changed to a threshold of 0.1% after some crops were mistakenly sent back. With so many GM crops being used in the Americas, cases of contamination in imports are a concern.

But Schimpf says the embrace of GM crops in the Americas should not pressure the EU into going in the same direction. “For me, it’s the same as when we have higher labour standards,” she says. “We can insist that importers must comply with EU standards. Europe wouldn’t authorise a car just because it was authorised in China, we want to have our own safety checks.” With the expansion of GM planting across the world, the pressure on the EU to make up its mind one way or the other will only increase.

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