The EU is the problem on GM crops, say UK scientists

14th Mar 2014

The use of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe is being hampered by a “dysfunctional approval process” imposed by the European Union, says a U.K. government-sponsored report released today. As a result, only a handful of GM crops may be approved in the near future, according to the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the U.K. prime minister on science policy.

While stating that the unanimous scientific consensus is that GM crops are safe, the report, whose authors include prominent plant biologists and biotechnologists, criticizes the European Union for regulation that has fettered progress of the technology and risk assessments that have been “influenced by political considerations that do not have a scientific basis.”

The council is jointly chaired by Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, who was an author on the report. “We’re asking for the regulation to be fit for purpose,” Walport says. Co-author Jim Dunwell, a plant biotechnologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, adds: “There has been an accumulation of regulation in a nonscientific way.”

Anyone seeking to release a GM organism in Europe has to get approval from Brussels. Applications are assessed largely by the European Food Safety Authority. As yet, only one variety, Bt maize, is grown and its crops are concentrated in Spain. None are grown in the United Kingdom. A vote in February to approve another variety of GM maize saw opposition from most nations, including France, Italy, and Austria. There was support, however, from Spain, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and the United Kingdom.

This is not the first time that British GM researchers have complained about E.U. red tape hampering their work. A purple tomato rich in an antioxidant pigment, recently developed at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K., for instance, has had to be grown in Canada for future research and to attract commercial interest.

Instead of the current regulatory system, in which new plant varieties are assessed according to the process used to produce them, the authors suggest that a product-based approach could be adopted, similar to the procedure already used in Canada. This would put the trait above the process so a plant variety produced using GM technology would be treated in the same way as an identical variety produced via conventional plant breeding.

“What really matters is the regulation of the trait rather than the method,” says Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, one of the authors of the report. “The regulation of the technology is not proportionate. … It’s time to remove the red flags.”

The report calls for Europe to take a step back by delegating final approval of commercial crop cultivation to individual nations. One route, it suggests, might be for the United Kingdom to create an authority that would be the GM equivalent to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which vets medicines for use in the United Kingdom. The European Union, meanwhile, could keep an advisory role on risk and safety.

The U.K. government already takes a positive line on GM crops. In January, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, told a farming conference in Oxford that Europe risks becoming “the museum of world farming” if it continues to reject GM crops.

In a letter to the prime minister which accompanies the report, the authors state: “The longer the E.U. continues to oppose GM whilst the rest of the world adopts it, the greater the risk that E.U. agriculture will become uncompetitive, especially as more GM crops and traits are commercialized successfully elsewhere.”

Dunwell also notes that African farmers successfully growing GM bananas and cassavas for themselves and for export are placed in a commercial quandary by the European Union’s anti-GM stance. “Allow independent E.U. states to go their own way,” he says.

The last major U.K. report on GM crops, produced by Britain’s Royal Society in 2009, backed the technology. In particular, it outlined the urgent need to increase food production globally and the importance of science in meeting that demand. Public opposition, however, continues and anti-GM pressure groups continue to attack research. In 2012, a GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, U.K., was vandalized by a protestor.

John Pickett, who has worked on the wheat trials at Rothamsted Research and is a co-author of the report, says: “The best way to address these concerns is actually to carry out the experiments and assess the potential of newly developed plants to offer solutions to specific agricultural problems.”

To this end, the report offers one final suggestion: “A new programme of independent research to field test ‘public good’ GM crops.” Named PubGM, it would assess traits produced by both private and public scientists for potential commercialization. But, adds Jones, “I don’t know exactly how it will work.”

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