A Happy New Year for GM crops?


Soon, EU Member States may be able to permit the cultivation of GM crops, says The Scientific Alliance.


New year, same old issues. Climate change negotiations continue with glacial slowness, with attention now focusing on what is touted as a landmark Conference of the Parties in Paris in December. Negotiators hope that this will see a binding international agreement on emissions reduction signed, but there must be many crossed fingers, given the abject failure of the similarly crucial Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions continue to rise inexorably in the absence of anything other than regional policies. Plus ça change…

And the issue of GM crops continues to be controversial, but this year, just maybe, we will see a significant and welcome change in some Member States. The GM approval system is an unholy mess; in principle objective and evidence-based, in practice it is highly politicised.

A panel of independent scientists working for the European Food Safety Authority makes a recommendation based on the data submitted by the applicant, often supplemented by additional questions and responses. Given the time and effort which goes into providing the necessary evidence of safety, it is hardly surprising that applications are nearly always approved; no competent company is likely to proceed with an application for an event with substantive safety concerns.

The EFSA evaluation results in a recommendation, not a decision. Approval is granted or withheld on the basis of voting in the Environment Council – the environment ministers from all 28 Member States. A sufficient number of these are ideologically opposed to genetic modification to ensure that there is never a qualified majority for approval. At the same time, a number of countries regularly vote on the basis of the recommendation, so there are also insufficient votes for a qualified majority for rejection.

This leaves the final decision normally with the Commission. In the majority of cases, approval is sought for use of imported crops for food or feed, and this is nodded through according to the EFSA recommendation. However, when it comes to the much more controversial issue of cultivation in Europe, there has lately been no stomach for a rational response, and the approval process has had to be rerun on spurious grounds. No wonder that many arable farmers are highly frustrated that they are not given the choice of GM traits, while livestock farmers continue to rely on imported GM soy protein to feed their animals.

In 2010 the then environment commissioner, John Dalli, proposed a route to break the deadlock. Essentially, Member States would be able to make their own decisions to ban domestic cultivation without the need to justify them on the basis of evidence. In return, it was hoped that they would vote for EU-wide approval, safe in the knowledge that they would not have to abide by the decision in their home country. This change to the regulations is set to be introduced soon if the Parliament votes in favour next week.

This seems to be welcome news for the UK government, if Liz Truss’s remarks at the Oxford Farming Conference are to be believed: Britain must be free to grow GM food, says minister. The compromise is a typically messy one and runs counter to the general move in the direction of the single market. Nevertheless, it is to be welcomed to the extent that at least the more broadminded of national governments will be free to allow their farmers the choice of varieties developed using the latest technology. Other governments, meanwhile, will no longer have to pretend that there is any real risk to consumers or the environment. Would that it were otherwise, but at least this is a step in the right direction.

Interestingly, the groups lined up in opposition to GM crops no longer insist that there are risks. Instead, they complain that crop biotechnology has failed to deliver. Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth is quoted as saying “Despite decades of research they’ve failed to deliver promised benefits, resulted in increased pesticide use and have been an expensive distraction from real solutions to the food security challenges we face.” The pesticide use issue is something of a red herring: the important thing is not how much or how little is sprayed, but the nature of the pesticides and their impact on the environment. Increasingly, opposition is seen to be ideological rather than grounded in science.

The Times editorial line is also very much in favour of this development (Seeds of change) and does a pretty good job of summing up the arguments. Nevertheless, there are a couple of points which mar the overall message to some extent. The first relates to choice: “This will necessitate clearer labelling, including on meat from livestock that have been raised on GM feed.” While it is absolutely right that people should have the choice of what they eat, arguing that this should be extended to animal products makes no sense.

In reality, GM protein is already ubiquitous in the feed chain and has quite clearly caused no problems. Avoiding meat from animals that have consumed GM soy or maize is a philosophical position, since the meat itself is completely indistinguishable from any other. Much better for retailers and suppliers to label meat as being from animals not fed on GM protein, if there is a market for this. In practice, as well, consumers who want to take this position are free to buy organic meat.

The second point is, if anything, more worrying: “A review of the controls on pesticide use would also offer reassurance to a sceptical public.” Pesticides are already extremely tightly controlled, and recent changes in the regulatory regime, including the irrational move away from risk assessment to a hazard-based approach to approvals, risks making European farming even less competitive over coming years, while arguably increasing the risks to the environment.

The argument that tighter controls reassure the public is a false one. This is the ‘logic’ underlying the current GM crop regulatory fiasco. It is a similar line of thought which has resulted in the current temporary ban on neonicotinoid use for which, despite the likelihood that there will be no impact on bee populations, the green lobby will insist should be made permanent. Oilseed rape may become a rare crop in many areas, ironically removing a major source of food for bees.

So, is this a Happy New Year for GM crops? In some respects, yes, but there is still a long way to go.

Martin Livermore
The Scientific Alliance
St John’s Innovation Centre
Cowley Road
Cambridge CB4 0WS


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