Ruling out genetically modified crops in the face of climate change and rising food prices would be "insanity", the government’s new chief scientist John Beddington told the National Farmers’ Union conference in February.
His comments will have been music to the ears of the biotechnology industry, reinforcing recent comments from its own ranks. Four years from the end of the EU’s de-facto six-year moratorium on new approvals for cultivating and importing GM crops, there is a sense among some in the sector that the tide is turning.
The past months have seen increasing concerns about food security and prices, and a linked debate about the acceptability of biofuels - problems the industry thinks it can help to solve.
Acreages of the only commercially grown GM crop, a maize, granted an EU licence for cultivation before the moratorium, have been rising steadily. Europe is finally on the verge of licensing another GM crop - a potato - under its new approval system.
But the environmental movement, food retailers and a sizeable proportion of policy-makers remain wary. NGOs accuse the industry of talking up benefits for the consumer and environment that are still some way off. The approvals process put in place after the moratorium seems to satisfy neither side.
The rot had set in a couple of years earlier when the US agrochemical giant Monsanto stopped separating its herbicide-tolerant GM soy beans from conventional strains (ENDS Report 283, pp 18-30 ). This decision sparked considerable public distrust in Europe and concern about the technology’s effects on health and the environment - not to mention ethical questions about the commercial annexation of naturally occurring genes.
It took five years to put a new approval process in place with more stringent risk assessment procedures, and also to establish a panel of independent scientific experts - managed by the newly formed European Food Safety Authority - to scrutinise them (see box on p 42). To date, 12 crops have received final authorisation for import and use in food or animal feed, or for processing, under the new system (see tables, pp 40-41).
Most are maize feedstocks but the list also includes rapeseed, sugar beet and a mauve carnation.
Another five crops, all of which had been given a clean bill of health by EFSA, were considered by EU farm ministers on 18 February. But the ministers failed to reach a conclusion, and the power to approve them now reverts to the Commission. The same thing had happened for the 12 now-authorised crops.
Representatives from both the biotech sector and green lobby agree that the system is the most rigorous in the world and - in theory - a workable solution. But neither side believes it works in practice. Clare Oxborrow, a GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth, does not think EFSA takes the concerns of member states seriously enough. She is also unhappy with the way the final approvals have been achieved. "It’s still not very satisfactory when you get the majority of countries rejecting something and an unelected body approving it," she says.
Dr Julian Little, chair of the UK’s Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), takes a different view. The EU went to a lot of effort to put in place a science-based system, he says. "However, having done that they added in some political processes on top… Unlike the UK, not every country takes the science seriously.
"At the current rate it would take ten years to clear what’s in the system already, let alone any second-generation products."
Further delays may also attract attention from the World Trade Organisation. It ruled in 2006 that the EU’s moratorium had breached international trade rules but took a step back to give the US and EU time to reach a bilateral agreement.
The situation is already tense due to a series of national-level bans on cultivating GM crops. The European Commission has not been able to act against these because it does not have the backing of the majority of member states.
Animal feed controversy
Few European retailers have dared put GM-labelled goods on their shelves, but consumers may unknowingly come into contact with other GM materials. Commercial catering oils may be based on GM seeds, and a growing volume of cotton supplies - including some used to make euro notes - include fibres from GM plants.
But by far the biggest use of GM products is in animal feed. Much of the soya and other crops are imported for this purpose from GM or mixed-supply chains and many compound feedcakes contain traces of GM material. All have required authorisations from the EU.
The debate about the rate of EU approvals for new GM strains becomes particularly heated around the issue of importing GM animal feeds. Figures from the UK’s Environment and Farming Department (DEFRA) show a 20% rise in the price of animal feedstocks over the past year. The pinch is expected to continue, fuelled by the growing popularity of meat and dairy products in China and India, ever-growing populations and competition for land from biofuels.
Representatives from the farming and feedstock industries think the extra time it takes for new GM crops to be approved in the EU will put them at a competitive disadvantage when compared to those outside the bloc. While they wait years for approval to import the new GM animal feeds, their overseas rivals will be benefiting from using them. They are also unhappy with the zero-tolerance approach to unapproved GM organisms.
"With prices rocketing and margins so tight any small change makes a massive difference," says Dr Helen Ferrier, science and regulatory affairs adviser at the NFU. She fears Europe’s farmers will be forced to pay a premium price for feed from countries that keep non-GM crops separate from GM crops, and that feed suppliers may eventually bypass the EU market.
These concerns were highlighted by the recall and impoundment last May of feedstocks imported into the Netherlands and Ireland that were found to contain traces of Pioneer Hi-Bred’s ‘Herculex’ GM maize, which has been approved by the US. "This is the kind of thing we could see on a massive scale unless the regulatory process works as it should, based on science," says Colin Merritt, policy director at Monsanto UK.
Farmers’ fears were stoked still further by a study into the effects of the GM approval system published by the European Commission’s agricultural directorate in July. Its worst-case scenario foresaw a six-fold increase in EU feed prices over the next two years, with devastating effects for the pig and poultry sectors.
Patrick Rudelsheim, chair of the European Federation of Biotechnology’s safety task force, thinks even this scenario is "a bit optimistic". It assumes the EU will catch up in issuing approvals for GM imports after a couple of years, he says, and ignores the even newer products that will have appeared in the meantime.
The NFU’s Dr Ferrier believes the answer is to give some recognition to strains approved elsewhere. But Pete Riley of UK campaign group GM Freeze believes it should be possible to keep GM and non-GM crops separate after harvesting, and that the various contamination scandals of recent years are down to "the industry’s bad house-keeping" (ENDS Report 394, p 23 ). For some sectors "there’s a vested interest in talking up the contamination problems," he says.
Ms Oxborrow is similarly dismissive: "It’s a load of scaremongering on the back of worst-case scenarios being used politically to try and weaken the EU approval system."
The increase in commodity prices last year was driven by poor harvests and rising biofuel cultivation, not the GM imports issue, she says. And the EU market for animal feeds is large enough for suppliers to take its demands seriously.
The GMOs approved since the moratorium ended have been for import only, but there is one approval for cultivating a GM crop waiting in limbo. BASF’s Amflora potato has been engineered to produce only one of the two starches made by potatoes. The amylopectin starch it makes is more useful to the paper, textile and adhesive sectors than amylose starch. (Conversely, other researchers are trying to develop an amylose-only potato for biofuel production.)
By-products from the starch-extraction process may be fed to animals but the Amflora potato has the regulatory advantage of being an industrial product that will be fed into a dedicated non-food supply chain, says GM Freeze’s Mr Riley. It is likely to be grown in Germany, which has a long history of growing potatoes for industrial uses.
The potato was considered by EU ministers in July but there was not a large enough majority in favour to approve it. The Commission was then expected to approve it within three months, but has yet to do so.
One possible reason for the delay is the presence of a gene for antibiotic resistance. When Amflora was being developed, such genes were routinely used to help technicians identify plants that had successfully incorporated the new outsider gene. But there were worries about them spreading to other organisms and the industry has since promised to phase out their use.
BASF said in December that it was confident of receiving approval for Amflora by the end of February, enabling farmers to grow the potato in 2008. That now looks unlikely. The company says it has not been given a reason for the delay, but the Commission says it is technically within the three-month window as the clock stops every time it needs to ask EFSA or member states a question.
"Our system is one of the safest in the world. It may not be as speedy as some might have wished for but we take the safety of the environment and our citizens very seriously," says Commission spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich.
BASF’s potato is a bit of a sideshow for most of the GM industry which has more invested in major commodity crops like maize, wheat and cotton.
Many of the GM strains suitable for cultivation in the EU and now going through its approval system pre-date the moratorium. Opinions on their chances this time round are mixed. The ABC’s Dr Little is one of those who thinks their time has come. When GM crops appeared in the 1990s the EU was over-producing food, he says. "We’re now moving into a situation where food supplies aren’t matching demands. Whenever that happens, the need for productivity returns to the fore. This is a technology that’s up and running and working well… when farmers have access to it, they choose it."
Monsanto also is quietly optimistic about its old-timers. When asked what the first GM strains to be grown commercially in the UK might be, Dr Merritt mentions herbicide-tolerant maize and beet.
The environmental effects of these, and a herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, were examined in great detail during the UK government’s four-year ‘field-scale evaluations’ (ENDS Report 345, pp 27-31 ). The results were released in October 2003 and showed the GM beet and spring-grown rape had a detrimental effect on local biodiversity - a result seized on by environmental campaigners and the media.
The final conclusions of the government’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) were, Dr Merritt notes, less critical. "I don’t think personally, with perhaps some minor variations to the management advice, there’s anything holding them back."
But GM Freeze’s Mr Riley thinks it will be 2015 or so before the first GM crops are grown commercially in the UK. His bet is on a blight-resistant potato from BASF leading the way, not the earlier trialled crops, which have been "tried and found wanting".
The one GM food-and-feed crop being grown in Europe at the moment - Monsanto’s corn borer-resistant maize - has also come under attack from French President Nicholas Sarkozy in recent months. Farmers in France grew around 20,000 hectares of MON810 in 2007 but Mr Sarkozy blocked further sales of the seed in January, citing concerns about its health and environmental effects. The move follows a ban in Germany last year - now lifted - and ongoing restrictions in Austria and Hungary.
The EU’s Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has further angered the industry by suggesting two maize strains with similar genes should not be authorised, despite receiving a clean bill of health from EFSA.
Mike Hall, manager of communications for Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont-owned firm that developed one of the maizes and sells the MON810 under licence, is furious.
"Dimas’s alleged reasons for sitting on our 1507 maize dossier, contrary to the timelines set out under EU legislation, are based on ‘pseudo-science’, undermine the EFSA and are just not cricket," he says. The dossier was submitted nearly seven years year ago and "those who challenge the EU’s independent scientific assessment forget these crops have been approved and grown widely around the world for many years," he adds.
Coexistence and environmental liability
Should a crop eventually make it through the EU system, there is another hurdle that could prevent it being grown in the UK - the lack of any so-called coexistence measures. The term includes mechanisms such as exclusion zones that are intended to prevent any cross-contamination of conventional harvests, and compensation schemes for circumstances where this does occur.
The EU left it to member states to choose their own coexistence regimes. Some have gone for voluntary measures while others plan to make them statutory.
DEFRA has consulted on proposals that would see a statutory notification and separation system with a voluntary code of practice and compensation scheme. When it launched the consultation in July 2006 it envisaged GM crops as ready for potential cultivation by 2009. It now looks unlikely that any measures will be in place by then.
DEFRA finally released a breakdown of the 11,676 responses to its consultation late last year. Of these, 98% were from members of the public and most were critical, although many were pre-prepared responses from NGO campaigns.
DEFRA said the government would wait for the outcome of three scientific studies and long-awaited EU rules on labelling seeds before redrafting the measures. Some NGOs suspect another attempt is unlikely before the next election.
They have now turned their attentions to the UK’s transposition of the EU environmental liability Directive. This covers more than just GMOs, but was meant to provide a liability regime for any environmental harm they caused. The eventual Directive was rather weak in this area and DEFRA has angered campaigners by taking a minimalist approach to its transposition into UK law (see pp 51-52 ). They fear much of the countryside will be left unprotected.
Golden rice and drought-busting maize
Looking further ahead, the websites of firms like Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta herald a next generation of GM products capable of improving nutrition in the developing world, cutting water and fertiliser consumption, and making more efficient biofuels.
According to industry association EuropaBio, biotechnology is a "powerful toolbox" that can help "meet the major challenges of the new millennium" including population growth, degraded soil, over-stretched water resources and global warming.Commercial confidentiality makes it hard to tell how far these wonder products are from commercialisation. While some are apparently undergoing field trials, there are none on the market or seeking EU approval.
FoE’s Ms Oxborrow claims the failure of these products to materialise after more than ten years of hype shows manipulating the genome is harder and more risky than the industry implies. "We need to ask what the industry has actually delivered after all this time and with all this political and financial support from the UK government," she says. The government invests far more in GM research than in alternatives such as organic farming that already deliver health and environmental benefits, and it should give up on a failed technology, she says.
Mr Riley, meanwhile, thinks the industry should have put more effort into investigating the health effects of gene interactions - still not fully understood - and the environmental effects of GM before developing new products. There are some post-market monitoring requirements in the US but NGOs claim they are too limited to identify potential problems. There are also difficulties with establishing an environmental baseline and identifying potential health effects when GM products are not separated out or labelled.
"There’s a body within the scientific community who’ve spent a lot of their working lives developing GM crops and are emotionally committed to them," says Mr Riley. "They and the industry have historically had the ear of the government despite the lack of any outputs for UK agriculture."
But industry representatives claim it is the NGOs themselves that have held back progress and prevented the development of products more suited to the EU market. Traits such as drought tolerance are affected by far more genes and require a more thorough understanding of plant physiology than first generation GM crops - that is why the less immediately appealing ones like herbicide-resistance had to come first, they say.
They hope EU consumers can still be won over and think an emerging range of crops with health benefits may be the answer. Dr Little cites plans for crops rich in omega-3 oils, which would cut the amount of oily fish people need to eat.
There are also great hopes for ‘golden rice’, which produces much more beta-carotene than normal varieties and could help combat vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world.
When the European Commission last investigated attitudes to biotechnology in 2005 it found widespread public hostility despite the changes to the approval system. Of the ‘decided’ public - the 50% or so that had a clear view - 58% opposed GM foods. Widespread adoption of GM products by food manufacturers and retailers seems unlikely given that degree of resistance.
But a more recent and UK-specific survey carried out by the Food Standards Agency found GM ranked lower on consumers’ lists of concerns than issues like pesticide and hormone residues in food and the use of additives. Only 21% of those questioned consider it a cause for concern.
Dr Ferrier also senses a change. Recent media coverage of GM has been less sensational and showed a broader range of views, she says. "And time does change things - the fact it’s been grown commercially and eaten by millions of people does mean something. I’m also quite sceptical about how much NGOs and consumer groups represent public opinion."
Ms Oxborrow at FoE thinks the current situation is just a lull and that consumers’ opposition would be rekindled if GM products began appearing on the shelves.
However, when NGOs protested about milk from GM-fed cows in 2004, they failed to capture the public’s imagination. Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s started offering milk from cows raised entirely on GM-free feed but other supermarkets said customers who felt strongly about the issue should buy organic milk.
Monsanto, meanwhile, is keeping its head down. "We’ve learned lessons from the past about being too vocal," says Dr Merritt. "We’re trying to be as constructive and enabling as we can… but we’ve learned about how these things have to operate."
The onus should not be on the industry to convey the safety of GM crops as it will always have an obvious vested interest, he says. Instead it is up to regulators - and ultimately the governments standing behind them - to instil public confidence in their systems.
This takes us back to the strongly pro-GM declaration of the government’s new chief scientist, John Beddington. But then again his predecessor, Professor Sir David King, also banged the drum for GM crops. As did the man who appointed him, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Even so, the public has not come round and bringing GM crops to UK fields remains stuck in the slow lane.