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The GMO debate is open

15 July 2010

José Ignacio García, SJ

5 May 2010

The recent approval from the Commission of a GM potato springs the debate about the acceptance of this technology in Europe after many years of refusal.

In March the European Commission authorized the cultivation of a genetically modified potato called Amflora, from the Basf company. This news would be unremarkable, except that it is 12 years since the previous GMO application received approval. What has changed so that such a decision can be made after so many years?

One factor undoubtedly is the willingness of President Barroso to push forward the process of evaluating – and potentially approving – what has been defined as “responsible innovation”.

GMO is a technology developed within the last 20 years: it allows the modification of a living organism’s genetic structure by incorporating genetic material from a different organism. A process that could take decades by the traditional Mendelian methods of cross-fertilisation, with some degree of uncertainty and with doubtful efficacy, can now be achieved quickly by sophisticated techniques of cutting and pasting genes. In the case of the Amflora, the potato was modified to increase its starch content, which makes it far more suitable for industrial use.

But this revolutionary technology, today spread throughout the world (China and India are now deeply involved in the research and production of GMOs) has provoked fierce controversy, mainly between scientists and conservationists, about the long-term impact of these techniques on health and the environment.

Another major point at issue is the unacceptable commercial dependence that GMOs impose in farmers. Seed companies associate their herbicides with the specific genetic modification introduced in the product: this creates an indissoluble link between the seed and the chemicals, so that the farmer is bound to the corporate suppliers in a way that distorts genuine competition. The lack of public research in this field, and the tight control of intellectual property by seed and chemical companies, have created a concentrated cluster of a few corporate actors which control both innovation and commerce.

The USA plunged so enthusiastically into the GMOs race that more than 80% of its soya and maize production is now harvested with genetically modified varieties. In Europe, however, the reluctance, or sometimes the clear refusal, of some member states has led to a “de facto moratorium” that is untenable in the long run.

Authorisation of the product has been delayed for years, by the non-transparent strategy of keeping the dossiers locked in a drawer. The EU, however, was obliged to offer real arguments, not merely fears or suspicions, so as to forbid the trade of these products.

Yet when trials for food safety assessment were conducted, the results scarcely differ from what science found elsewhere. The GMO’s food values are equivalent to those obtained with traditional methods. Therefore, no clear evidence can be offered that is sufficient to block production and consumption, at least with the science available today.

It remains legitimate that states are reluctant to allow these products into their markets. The precautionary principle cannot be argued decisively on present evidence, and neither can ideological objections command assent at the world trade institutions that deal with these disputes. Therefore the argument that the farmers become unbearably dependent on the seed and chemical corporations is the last barrier that can plausibly be opposed to this technological flood tide.

The Commission has decided to move forward to allow GMOs. The latest decision, Basf’s potato together with five maize varieties from Monsanto (the latter being allowed for both animal and human consumption) is a challenge to the member states. The response from member states to the proposal for authorisation that came before the Standing Committee – to deliver no opinion – shows clearly how divided are positions among them. The Commission is also seeking a clear debate in the EU, so as to reach a common position. Clearly the delaying strategy used up to now is not realistic: but the approval of food safety regulations lies with member states, so that the Commission needs their agreement.

Undoubtedly an urgent debate is necessary to reach clarity and consensus so that a consistent response, whatever it may be, can emerge from the European Union.

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