The European Commission’s continued refusal to approve the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops that have got the seal of approval from its own scientists could lead to the “marginalisation of science in Europe, the discrediting of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the collapse of the EU livestock industry”, biotechnologists have warned.
In a letter to EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas, professor Marc Van Montagu, who heads up the European Federation of Biotechnology, said Dimas’s recent draft decision to reject two GM Bt maize product submissions was based on “discredited scientific arguments”
He added: “The decision is totally unacceptable, not only for European farmers and consumers, but also sets a terrible example for other parts of the world that draft guidelines for the cultivation of GM crops, since they look to Europe as an example.
“This is especially true in the developing world where there is an urgent need of new technologies to raise agricultural productivity. Other GM strains of maize are under development that will have enhanced nutritional quality or tolerance to drought, and must be given the chance to reach those who need them the most.”
Agriculture was also vital to the European economy, and Europe stood to gain much by the cultivation of new high performance crop varieties.
Frustratingly, the rejections appeared to be politically rather than scientifically motivated, given that nine out of the 11 publications cited in Dimas’s draft decision confirmed the environmental safety of Bt maize cultivation, while the remaining two were unreliable, he claimed.
Bt maize ensured productivity in years of heavy infestations and reduced the need for pesticides, he said. “The benefits of Bt maize are well documented: average yield benefits have often been 10% and sometimes higher. Recent field trials in Italy showed that Bt maize performed better than conventional varieties with yield increases of 28-43%. Bt maize is not only more profitable for farmers, but it is healthier because of lower contamination with fungal mycotoxins, which represent a significant health threat when present in the food chain.
“As European scientists we urge you to reconsider and return to a reasoning based on science and experience.”
Europa Bio, which represents European biotech companies, also protested against the “undue political intrusion in the approval system” for GM crops.
Secretary general Johan Vanhemelrijck said: “Commissioner Dimas is recycling old and already refuted arguments and proposing the rejection of two products that have been comprehensively evaluated by the EFSA, in doing so he is attempting to undermine the entire EU safety assessment process across a broad range of innovative activities and products to come.”Insect resistance provided by Bt offered clear benefits to farmers because it improved yields in infested areas and reduced spraying, he claimed. “Once farmers are allowed to grow GM crops, invariably they choose to do so.”
Their comments came as professor David King, the government’s outgoing chief scientific advisor, said there was a “moral case” for the UK and the rest of Europe to grow GM crops in order to feed the world’s growing population in the face of climate change.
Tate & Lyle chief executive Iain Ferguson has also given his support to the technology in recent weeks.