Massive rise in GM farming still not enough, says Europe’s biotech industry

November 12, 2007

October 31, 2007 /Despite long-standing and recently more pronounced scepticism of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the past 12 months have seen a massive 77% increase in the area planted with genetically modified crops in Europe. More than 1,000 square kilometres of GM maize was harvested.

Presenting those figures on 29 October in Brussels, EuropaBio, the association of European biotechnology industries, called for a further increase in the cultivation of GM maize, more specifically Bt maize, as well as a speedier approval for other crops at European level. According to EuropaBio, more than 60 crops are currently delayed in the EU approval system or ‘stuck in the backlog’.

‘If it is clear from risk assessment that the product is safe, then that product should nearly automatically receive approval,’ said Johann Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio, in a CORDIS News interview, calling on policy-makers to base their decisions more reliably on scientific research. ‘Only then will companies continue to invest in research. It is not possible to ask the companies to contribute two-thirds to the 3% of the Lisbon target for research if you do not allow the products that result from this research [to be commercialised],’ he added.

Currently, the only GM crop approved for planting in the EU is Bt corn, which is resistant to the corn borer – a moth larva that eats the plant’s stem and ear, boring holes in the process that clear the way for potentially toxic fungi to spread. Bt corn, a variety of transgenic maize, has had its genome modified to include a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis and produce a toxin which affects the corn borer. Critics have warned, however, that the modified maize variety also affects beneficial insects.

Maize makes up about 14% of all the crops planted in the European Union, meaning that ‘maize matters’, Nathalie Moll, executive director of the Green Biotechnology Europe (GBE) section of EuropaBio, pointed out. Figures show that 1% of Europe’s maize is genetically modified today. According to estimates, about 25% of EU maize is affected by the European corn borer.

Eight countries in Europe currently allow the cultivation of Bt maize. In France, for instance, there has been a 323% increase of Bt maize plantings from 5,000 hectares in 2006 to more than 21,000 hectares in 2007. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has just suspended all GM plantings until next year, and he is not the only European head of state to be wary of genetically engineered crops: Austria, for instance, where no GM crops are grown, has banned all imports of GM maize. EU environment ministers are set to vote on 30 October on a Commission proposal to force Austria to end its national ban or safeguard clause.

Nevertheless, ‘farmers in Europe must want it’, concluded Ms Moll, as ‘a 77% increase in one year shows that there is some interest’, particularly considering that Bt maize is not a recent development but was first approved in the EU in 1998. According to Ms Moll, the use of Bt maize increases competitiveness, helps cut down on CO2 emissions and is beneficial for consumers because it reduces ingestion of the fungal toxins produced on insect-damaged corn.

While critics have cast doubt on the apparent benefits of GM crops for years, Dr Marc van Montague, one of the pioneers of plant genetic engineering, is sure that the higher yield provided by GM crops will soon be needed in order to feed the world’s growing population and meet its energy demands. Moreover, ‘scientists have made many, many more interesting constructs that could be important to consumers, that could be important to the environment and that could be important to developing countries,’ Dr van Montague told CORDIS News. He cited draught-resistant crops as an example. ‘But if the economic structure is not there, we cannot bring it to the market. Still, it will be applied in some places of the world and the rest will follow, because if farmers as well as the industry see the effects, there is no way to stop this science.’

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