Political hot potato

Is the EU at a turning point on GMO crops?

Last week, the EU issued its first authorisation for cultivation of a genetically modified plant (GMO) in 12 years. BASF’s Amflora potato variety quickly became the most famous spud since Toy Story’s Mr Potato Head.

The potato, engineered for enhanced starch content and antibiotic resistance, now joins an insecticide-emitting maize variety (MON810) on the lonely list of genetically modified crops which EU farmers are licensed to grow.

Simultaneously, Health Commissioner John Dalli unveiled an interlinking development with much broader consequences. The Commission will come forward with plans for devolving decision-making on GMO cultivation back to member states by this summer.

While rubber-stamping the GMO potato with one hand, Brussels is using its other to hold out the promise to member states that they will soon be allowed a permanent derogation from growing it.

Walking the GMO tightrope

Dalli and Commission President Barroso (who is at the heart of the plan), are clearly engaged in a delicate balancing act.

Sitting on their desks are a list of GMO dossiers carrying a green light from the EU’s food safety watchdog (EFSA), and awaiting action from the Commission.

Outside the Commission walls are a European public which is still uncertain and sceptical about the idea of genetically modifying a crop, a European Parliament split down the middle on the issue, and a host of member states who have previously been willing to override the EU rules and block passage of GMO approvals through Council.

Which goes some way to explaining why this week’s approval of the Amflora potato was less than emphatic.

While it looks like a normal potato, the Commission stipulates that Amflora will be exclusively grown for the production of starch for industrial uses.

The rules accompanying the approval stipulate that the potatoes must be delivered exclusively to designated starch processing plants in a “closed system”, while cultivation of conventional potatoes on the same field is prohibited for the following year.

Despite the stringent rules, and low risks of transgene flow due to the fact that potatoes propagate vegetatively (not through pollination) and have no cross-compatible wild relatives, the Commission has been forced to acknowledge that the possibility of Amflora mixing with potatoes in the food chain “can never be totally excluded”.

The rules almost sound like an apology for the approval of a product which the Commission deems to be safe. Coupled with the promise of an EU-approved derogation for sceptical member states, it is as if Brussels is inviting farmers and national authorities to press ahead with GMO cultivation, but at their own risk.

Agreeing to disagree

The new approach may appear as a practical solution for clearing the backlog of stalled GMO dossiers, but the mixed message coming out of Brussels does not bode well for the long term.

By saying ‘lets agree to disagree’, the EU fails to tackle fundamental concerns about the safety and desirability of GMOs head-on.

Sending responsibility back to national level could set a dangerous precedent for how Brussels handles publicly sensitive issues around food and agriculture.

The cloning dossier is another one gathering dust on Dalli’s desk. There are clear parallels with the GMO debate;¬† ethical arguments and food safety concerns again coincide when it comes to the idea of meat being derived from cloned animals and their offspring.

It is a distinct possibility that there will again be insufficient grounds for banning meat from cloned animals on food safety grounds, while moral and ethical aversions are likely to remain. Could a national opt-out again be the pragmatist’s solution?

Risks to common market

This is a slippery slope. A multi-tier food safety policy with opt-ins and opt-outs could raise serious questions about fragmentation of the common market. While the concrete effects may be limited (and mostly symbolic) in regard to GMO cultivation, there could be genuine damage to the unity of the internal market if the same principles were eventually applied to the numerous transgenic varieties which are imported into the EU (while not licensed for growing).

How can the EU be taken seriously as a single economic and social entity, if it cannot agree on what crops are safe to grow and consume, or whether cloned animal meat can be dished up?

In reality, the common market has already taken a battering from the de facto GMO bans currently in place in six member states (Germany, France, Greece, Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg). However, the message now being to Paris, Vienna and others is that if you obstruct the current rules successfully enough, your objections will override scientific views and will be translated into a new legal framework.

Their temporary derogation from the common market will be made into a permanent fixture, instead of being challenged through renewed efforts to forge consensus on EU rules and to stick to them.

The importance of a public knowledge base

Forging consensus on GMOs (letalone cloning) remains as difficult a prospect as ever; this is an issue where industry claims that increased yields, farmer satisfaction, environmental sustainability and safe consumption arise from their products, while NGOs simultaneously denounce biotech crops as the tool of a neo-imperialist food monopoly, fuelling farm debts, poverty, biodiversity loss, increased pesticide use, and a host of uncertain environmental outcomes.

But it is surely the EU’s role and responsibility to separate fact from fiction, and to engage in rigorous publicly-funded research which could carry broad authority in a way that industry-funded studies and NGO reporting cannot.

This would mean acting on the unanimous conclusions of EU environment ministers from December 2008, which called for environmental risk assessment procedures to be expanded in scope.

Major doubts remain over how GMO plants affect resistance trends in target organisms and non-target species, over the possibility of unpredictable genetic mutations when GMOs contact other organisms, and over how feasible it is for GMO and other farming systems to maintain genetic isolation while being cultivated in close proximity.

These very coexistence concerns are what undermines the idea of any member state remaining genuinely GMO-free in the long run, should neighbouring countries pursue GMO cultivation under a devolved system.

Breaking the monopoly

The majority of scientific evidence on these areas is currently provided by the GMO seed manufacturers themselves (to be analysed by EFSA), a trend which has inevitably undermined legitimacy, and has prompted ample counter-studies.

Taking on the necessary public research could be hugely costly, and could mean delaying approvals for the near future, particularly if the number of new GMO varieties proliferates as quickly as many are predicting.  However, the assurance of a publicly-funded, publicly-owned knowledge base on GMOs could help to underpin a common and consistent EU approach to the technology in the future.

Public perception of GMOs as ‘unsafe’ is not always based on nutritional concerns related to the specific genes inserted into a crop variety; it can often be an expression of broader uncertainties about the environmental impacts, and can also revolve around power imbalances between vulnerable farmers and dominant patent-wielding seed companies.

Ensuring adequate independent public resources for GMO assessments could at least help to assuage concerns that companies such as Monsanto are powerful enough to sway the biotech policy of governments.

The necessary studies could be hugely expensive, unpopularly so at a time of recession, but may be a way of depolarising the issue in the longer term.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti