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Green Week: GM debate revived across Europe

Thursday 23 January 2014


Delegates gathered for the Green Week agricultural show and policy event in Berlin have clashed over whether genetically modified crops have a part to play in reducing hunger and farming's environmental impacts. Meanwhile, the UK's embattled environment secretary has made a controversial speech about GM in Brussels, continuing on his resolutely pro-GM message.


The debate over GM crops has been rekindled, as a licensing decision from EU regulators nears on a controversial GM maize variety

As expected, discussion about the role of genetic engineering divided delegates at the Berlin Green Week. Philip von dem Bussche, spokesperson for seed giant KWS Saat AG, emphasised that genetic engineering could contribute to relieving hunger, but that this was not the only way to ease malnutrition and also not the most important.


He said the industry has made the mistake of arousing expectations around GM crop technology that are simply too high, and added that progress on areas such as drought-resistance may only be achieved after 20 or 30 years. However, he restated his support for the technology, claiming, "It is vitally important for us that consumers and farmers have freedom of choice."


Hans Herren, founder of the Biovision Foundation, warned that controversial genetically modified crops are potentially serving as a distraction from more pressing issues facing food production, such as soil degradation.  GM crops growing on poor soil, he argued, would still be unable to produce high yields. He added that, in areas of Africa, maize crops from local plants are able to produce ten times the 'normal' yield, as they are well adapted to the region, having developed resistance to diseases and pests.


Furthermore, he continued, high-yield strains often require greater amounts of water and fertiliser, which are frequently lacking in these countries. "It is vital to understand the entire production process, to heed the experiences of the farmers and to search for integrated solutions" to problems facing agriculture and wider society, said Herren, winner of the 2013 Alternative Nobel Prize.

UK environment secretary restates support for GM


Meanwhile, UK environment secretary Owen Paterson addressed an event held by lobby group EuropaBio on the "untold Story" of GM crops' potential benefits for consumers. Speaking on Wednesday in Brussels, the environment secretary said, "By continuing to ignore the evidence of the safe use of GM and its benefits, there is a real risk that we [in Europe] will deny ourselves access to the potential offered by new plant breeding techniques and other innovative technologies."


Contradicting both Herren and KWS' von dem Bussche, he added, "This affects not only Europe but those parts of the world where agricultural innovation is desperately needed now."


Responding to comments made by the Defra Secretary about GM crop, in which he once more sought to smear the crops' critics, the Soil Association's head of policy Peter Melchett said, "The accusation that opposition to GM is 'political' is simply a politician's way of sidestepping the overwhelming scientific, safety and market arguments against GM. GM crops are based on a grossly over simplified view of how DNA actually works. Scientific discoveries over the last decade have fatally undermined the simplistic assumptions on which GM technology was based."


Speaking last week, he added, "The fact is that no tests are done to check whether GM food is safe for people to eat… No testing is done anywhere in the world to look at the long term impacts, for example, of eating GM food during a lifetime." Melchett concluded, "Finally, what Owen Paterson, the UK Government and European regulators do or do not decide about particular GM crops is neither here nor there. Farmers don't grow what Owen Paterson tells them to grow, and Owen Paterson doesn't buy what they do grow."


Melchett's fellow Soil Association spokesperson Tom Macmillan last week said current UK government policy "shouldn't be mistaken for being mainly about feeding the world - it isn't."  He pointed to the World Bank-commissioned IAASTD report, which was compiled by over 400 scientists and has gained the support of the United Nations. The report views GM as a peripheral issue and recommends agroecology, searching for integrated solutions with the help of local farmers and securing practical help for farmers in getting products to market as key areas for investment.


Last week, MEPs urged their colleagues in the European Council not to grant approval of a controversial variety of GM maize that was fast tracked last year after a court ruling. In December, the General Court of the EU annulled the bloc's approval of BASF's Amflora potato (which was withdrawn from sale in 2012). The potato was only second GM variety to be licensed for cultivation in the EU.   


Although, as Mr Paterson said on Wednesday, the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) released a report in June that was critical of the EU's stance on GM crops, in October, a group of eminent independent scientists from the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) sought to underline in a statement that "there is no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified food and crops". The group included Dr Belinda Martineau, who worked on the world's first commercialised GM crop – the FlavrSavr tomato – Dr Martineau said, "Society's debate over how best to utilize the powerful technology of genetic engineering is clearly not over."

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