GMOs – GM crops spreading in Europe

By Manon Godot, 21th of April 2010

The global surface of land cultivated with GMOs has increased substantially for the past 13 years, from 17.000 km2 in 1997, to 900.000 km2 in 2005. In 2003, the 8 largest world GMOs producers were United States, with 53% of the global production, Argentina (17%), Brazil (11%), Canada (6%), India (4%), China (3%), Paraguay (2%), and South Africa (1%).

In the European Union territory, maize (Bt176, MON810, T25) was the first and only GMO plant allowed to be grown, in 1997. Spain became the first GM maize producer, followed by France, Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovakia and Germany. In 2007, GM maize was grown on nearly 110.000 hectares of these Member States, Spain remaining the largest producer with 68% of the total production. The GM maize planted in Europe produces a substance that enables it to defend itself against the larvae of the ’corn borer’, a persistent pest which used to cause the plants to tip over. Most of this GM maize is used in Europe as animal feed, but it can also be found in some human food products such as corn flakes, canned sweet corn, pop corn, corn oil, or as a source of starch used in food production.

Since 1997, no new genetically modified plants had been allowed to be grown within the EU. In 2001, the directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms established a new framework for the approval of new genetically modified crops, but these dispositions remained unused until now. According to this directive, the introduction of a new GMO plant on the European territory must be approved by the national Food Safety Authority of the Member State concerned and by the European Commission. If a Member State formulates an objection, the European Food Safety Authority, the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission will take part of the authorisation process. The national and European committees of scientists will proceed to an assessment of the health-related and environmental risks of the GM crop, which will be used by the EU decisional institutions in order to make their final decision. Once a GM plant has been allowed to be grown in Europe, the national legislations of the Member States are in charge of managing the coexistence of GM crops with conventional and organic agriculture.

However in 13 years, none of these dispositions had been used in order to allow a new GMO plant to be grown in Europe. The approval, on the 2/02/2010, given by the European Commission for the cultivation of a genetically modified potato (Amflora potato) developed by the German company BASF SE, raises lots of concerns among the EU population. For the first time in 13 years, the European Union manifests its determination to include more GMOs crops in the European agriculture. This shocking decision came with the authorisation of placing on the EU market of three new GM maize products from the American company Monsanto, for food purposes. Criticism is rising all around Europe, particularly in UK, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece and France, where people are worried to see the EU showing such a flagrant support for industry interests at the detriment of the public health and the environment.

The company BASF SE has been trying to introduce Amflora potato on the EU market since 2003. After the Member States failed to come to an agreement on the placing into the market of this product, the European Food Safety Authority was asked to formulate a scientific opinion on the issue. Its approval has been submitted to the EU executive, which had the final word on the authorization process. While some of the Member States are strongly opposed to the decision which has been made, and 70% of the EU consumers disagree with the use and culture of GMOs within the community, the Amflora potato crops will begin to be grown very soon on the continent.

In Amflora potato, the composition of the starch has been altered in order to make it better for certain industrial purposes. According to BASF, ‘Amflora starch makes yarn stronger and paper glossier; it also makes spray concrete adhere better to the wall and keeps glue liquid for longer.’ A usual potato contains two components called amylopectin and amylose, both beneficial for human consumption. In industrial processes however, only amylopectin is required for its thickening properties. The Amflora is a potato which starch contains only amylopectin, obtained after modifying its DNA by inserting a ‘mirror image’ of the gene responsible of the secretion of this component.

According to the European Medicines Agency, Amflora contains a genetic marker that presents an antibiotic resistance against Kanamycin, which plays an important role in treating certain infectious diseases in human and animal medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency have warned the EU about the risks to see Amflora’s antibiotic-resistance gene finding its way into the general environment and blunt the effectiveness of life saving medicines. The concerns of the WHO include:

–   The capability, for a GMO released into the environment to escape and potentially introduce to engineered genes into wild populations;

-   The persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested;

–   The susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product; the stability of the gene;

–   The reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity;

–   An increased use of chemicals in agriculture.’

These concerns however didn’t stop the EU executive for authorizing for the second time the cultivation of a GM plant on the European soil. The approval of the GM potato to be cultivated in the EU became indeed a symbolic issue, reflecting important political conflicts within the community, and the strong will of the EU to carry out and impose to the Member States a pro-GMOs politic.

This decision is the starting point of a new European policy favourable to the GM agriculture, while most of the European citizen are aware of its dangers and are calling the EU to stop before it’s too late. Once a GMO is released into the environment, there is no way back. A GM gene doesn’t stop at the gate of the field; it will spread, and conventional crops will be exposed to contamination. There is no way to make sure that no ‘out crossing’ between GM plants and conventional plants of related species won’t happen. Human and animal health is already exposed, by the consumption of GM food, to ‘gene transfers’ from the GMO to cells of the body or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, and to a rising allergenicity.

Once allowed, the GM plant crop’s coexistence with conventional crops will be regulated by the national legislations. According to the European Commission itself,

‘The possibility of adventitious (sic) presence of GM crops in non-GM crops cannot be excluded. Therefore, suitable measures are needed during cultivation, harvest, transport, storage and processing to ensure coexistence.’ (European Commission, agriculture and rural development).

Austria and Italy have voiced strong opposition against the decision of growing GM potatoes in Europe, and France have asked for further scientific research. The ‘European Citizens initiative’ created by Lisbon Treaty, enables one million EU citizens, who are nationals of a significant number of Member States, to call directly on the European Commission to bring forward an initiative of interest to them in an area of EU competence. An initiative of European Citizens is now circulating on the Internet by the way of a petition, to call the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso to ‘put a moratorium on the introduction of GM crops into Europe and set up an independent, ethical, scientific body to research the impact of GM crops and determine regulation.’ 672 404 EU citizen already expressed their concerns concerning GM crops. To voice your opposition through the signature of the petition, follow this link:

The environment and public health shouldn’t be pushed behind economic interests.


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