Not just environmentalists against GM crops

 

The European Commission’s decision to allow the cultivation of GM potatoes has not gained union-wide approval

THE EUROPEAN Commission’s decision earlier this month to approve a genetically modified (GM) potato called Amflora bears all the hallmarks of being the thin end of what could be a very large wedge. That’s why it was greeted with such delight by German chemical company BASF, which patented the potato, and by the biotech lobby in general.

This was the first time in 12 years that a GM crop had been approved for cultivation in Europe; the last one – indeed, the only other one – is an insecticide-emitting maize produced by US multinational Monsanto, which was licensed in 1998. Monsanto also had cause to celebrate, as the commission authorised three more of its GM maize varieties.

The commission said it was authorising the cultivation of Amflora potatoes for industrial use – principally in the manufacture of starch – and the use of its starch byproducts for animal feed. It also decided that Monsanto could place its three GM maize varieties on the market “for food and feed uses but not for cultivation”.

According to health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli, this followed an “extensive and thorough review” of the applications from BASF and Monsanto and a series of “favourable safety assessments” by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

“All scientific issues, particularly those concerning safety, had been fully addressed,” he said. However, it emerged that two of the 21 EFSA scientists did not share their colleagues’ favourable view of Amflora, saying the possibility of its antibiotic-resistant genes being transferred to bacteria in human or animal gastro-intestinal tracts could not be ruled out; if this happened, it would become more difficult to treat infections such as tuberculosis.

The EFSA’s scientific panel assessing GM products has been chaired since 2003 by Dr Harry Kuiper, a Dutch biochemist who previously co-ordinated a research programme involving three leading biotech firms – Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Greenpeace says the panel has too many biochemists and only “one or two experts on the environment”. This lacuna in the EFSA was adverted to by a spokeswoman for the French government, who said: “We do not recognise their expertise because we consider that their opinions are incomplete. They are only interested in the sanitary consequences of GMOs [genetically modified organisms], without taking into account their long-term environmental impact” on soils and species.

So it is not only environmentalists who object to permitting GM crops. The governments of Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland are all opposed, making it clear in the wake of the commission’s decision that they would not allow Amflora to be cultivated on their territories. (Our own Government has yet to express a view on it).

The Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden take a more tolerant approach. But it is precisely because there are such divided views that the EU council of agriculture ministers failed to reach agreement on Amflora – and this paved the way for the commission to use its residual powers to make the decision by default.

Dalli has been asked to make proposals “setting out how an EU authorisation system, based on science, can be combined with freedom for member states to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory”. In other words, the common market may be abandoned in this area.

The public remains sceptical about the need to go down the GM route, promoted so vigorously by Monsanto. In the case of Amflora, there is arguably no need for it; as Friends of the Earth pointed out, two conventional potato varieties already on the market have similar high-starch qualities as the GM alternative produced by BASF.

Writing in The Irish Timeslast month, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski complained that opposition to GMOs “has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as ‘Frankenstein foods’ ” – before going on, in the next sentence, to indulge in scaremongering himself. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin” – a patently ludicrous claim, given the way insulin is manufactured from GM bacteria in secure laboratories.

Concerns about growing GM crops include contamination of organic crops and the environment, potential destruction of biodiversity and local agriculture, excessive use of pesticides and the as-yet-unknown effects of GM food on public health, as well as the way in which a small number of patent-holding companies would control the food chain.

In 1999, Canadian environmental scientist and long-time campaigner David Suzuki – a professor in the University of British Columbia’s genetics department for almost 40 years – said of GM crops: “Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying. The experiments have simply not been done.”

There have been more experiments carried out over the past decade, particularly in the US, but only 0.12 per cent of agricultural land throughout the EU (most of it in Spain) is currently used for GM crops. This may change if the European Commission was to extend its benign view of Amflora to 17 other GM crops currently awaiting approval.

Yet we still do not know enough to say for sure that such genetically engineered crops are safe. Until we do, the precautionary principle must surely intervene.

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