Seeking common ground
May 16, 2014
by Chris Lyddon
Europe is making another attempt to break its longstanding logjam over the production and marketing of GM crops. But huge differences remain between the E.U. member states, with some governments, like that of Britain, bemoaning the loss of potential technology investment, while others, like France and Austria, continuing to try to block GM crops at all costs.
Owen Paterson, the member of the British administration responsible for agriculture, is pushing a science-led agenda.
“As Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the U.K., I have four priorities — growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding both plant and animal health,” he said at a conference organized by EuropaBio, the body which represents the European biotech industry, earlier this year. “I firmly believe that the benefits of GM to farmers, consumers and the environment are an important part of achieving all of these objectives,” he said.
“By continuing to ignore the evidence of the safe use of GM and its benefits, there is a real risk that we will deny ourselves access to the potential offered by new plant breeding techniques and other innovative technologies. This affects not only Europe but those parts of the world where agricultural innovation is desperately needed now. Europe risks sending a message that we are anti-science and anti-innovation.”
Europe is sending mixed messages to industry and society, he said. “Without clarity, industry will not invest in Europe.”
Evidence shows there are farmers who need, choose and use these GM products when they are available, and when democratic choices are guaranteed, said Nathalie Moll, EuropaBio’s Secretary General.
“The fact that policy makers don’t make decisions on dossiers despite EFSA (European Food Standards Authority) concluding products are safe, supposedly because of lack of public trust, decreases public trust in the products and perpetuates the vicious circle of: no vote, no trust, no vote. There is a need for leadership by policy makers to take decisions on products that some farmers would choose if they had a choice,” she said. “In Europe, Spain is clearly leading the path with a proven record of benefits to farmers and society as a whole. Since 1998, thanks to Bt maize cultivation, maize imports into Spain have reduced by more than 853,000 tonnes.”
In a guide to GM authorizations in Europe, EuropaBio bemoans the fact that fewer products have been authorized each year since 2010. “The system is slowing down, which increases the likelihood of trade disruptions.”
In recent months, Greece, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union’s Council of Ministers, has brought back an idea first suggested by the government of the Netherlands, a plan to renationalize, in E.U. speak, the question of GM approvals.
“Originally it came from some Dutch irritation, if you like, with the rules being broken left, right and center about whether or not you could ban GM and whether there was a common market,” Bayer CropScience specialist Julian Little told World Grain. “They said, ‘Well, why couldn’t you have a situation where you determine whether something is safe to be eaten and to be grown and everything else at a European level, and then it was just up to the member states, individual member states, to say,
OK, let us decide whether or not it’s going to be grown here?’”
Superficially, of course, that looks like an interesting idea, he said.
“The problem is that some of the most anti-GM countries don’t want farmers in their neighboring countries to have an advantage. Bizarrely enough, some of the countries that were against this idea were those that have previously banned the stuff,” he said.
Shortly thereafter came an issue with Pioneer 1507, a new genetically modified crop from the U.S. firm DuPont Pioneer. On Feb. 10, E.U. ministers allowed the cultivation of the Pioneer 1507 maize. Despite fierce opposition, opponents failed to muster enough support against the move.
“You have this new maize variety that has got through the regulatory process but hasn’t been rubberstamped by the Commission,” explained Little. “It would be the first food and feed crop authorized since the turn of the millennium. A number of countries were quite upset by the fact that they had unsuccessfully blocked the okaying of that particular variety of insect-resistant maize and said we must sort out this question of renationalization. Therefore it is now back on the table as being something for member states to vote on or to at least look at.
“It is absolutely true that there are some countries where the public opinion is definitely moving in the direction of, ‘Our farmers should be allowed to use this stuff if it’s safe.’”
He noted there are other countries where, “due to some very good government manipulation of public opinion,” the public remained strongly opposed.
Expressed government misgivings are very powerful, even though people might not be persuaded by a positive view from the government, Little said.
“If the government says something is safe, people will say they are not convinced. But if the government says it is worried about the safety of this, most people will say they are not having anything to do with that,” he said. “It is one of those difficult scenarios where countries like France and Austria have been making some very strange statements, with little resemblance to reality, around the safety of biotech and things like that to the point where, not surprisingly, they have freaked out the people that live there.
“Austria has absolutely no interest in productive farming. To be absolutely blunt, if ever there was a country that had moved as far as possible, they could go along the organic route because quite simply, doing it non-organically, they struggle to complete.”
On the other hand, he noted, are places like the U.K., where organic production makes up only 4% of agriculture and 75% to 80% of that involves growing grass.
“I have heard a number of people point out very clearly that GM is almost the best thing that ever happened to organic,” he said. “I would also argue that there is a great market possibility if they get their act together to be the standard non-GM place in the market. It suits them very well to bitterly oppose that idea. But as I said, that’s exactly what I’d do if I was in their marketing department.”
Little cited surveys showing clearly that people in the U.K., for example, are very well aware of the benefits of biotech in terms of both climate change and in terms of developing countries.
“I think the fact that there is now more GM being grown in developing countries than there is in non-developing countries for the first time since it started really has hit home to people that this is a technology that works on big farms and small farms,” he said.
In Africa, countries supporting GM include Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso, as well as South Africa, which has supported biotech crop development from the beginning. At the same time, a number of other countries are doing work within those countries to bring GM products to fruition, he said.
“They can’t commercialize them yet, but things like the super cassava and the water-efficient maize, drought tolerance and all of this stuff going on in places like Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon and the like demonstrates that there is a hunger for this technology because they recognize what it can do for them,” he said.
“Obviously, at the same time, they recognize that European politics is a bit strange. So they are very nervous about it.”
However, he did not believe that Europe’s unwillingness to adopt GM needed to slow down progress in Africa.
“The vast majority of food in Africa is grown for Africans,” he said. “There are cash crops, but they tend to be vegetables, for which there are no GM varieties. It seems to be a bit of a bizarre argument to say we can’t grow GM crops because other countries won’t import them when actually the GM crops that we are talking about would be eaten in Africa. For those that are exported, there are no GM varieties in any country, let alone developed countries.”
Little added: “There are fascinating discussions going on where Europeans go into these countries and freak people out to the point where they decide to hold back on commercialization whereas other countries, appear to say: ‘Do you know what? I understand that these rich people in Europe can have a choice, but this is the way forward.’
“Burkina Faso is a prime example of that where they had depositions of French politicians going over there saying they shouldn’t commercialize BT cotton and in the end they said, ‘The advantages of doing so are just too big’ and went ahead anyway.”