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Newsletter 15th February 2008

Europe and GM animal feed

This week, there have been reports that Europe is facing a crisis in its meat supply. An internal EU report has identified a major – and predictable – downside of the present negative attitude of many politicians towards agricultural biotechnology: a looming shortage of imported animal feed which will inevitably severely affect the availability of European meat and force a major contraction of livestock farming.

The reason is that, as the area sown to GM crops continues to grow and new traits are approved in the major agricultural exporting countries (the USA, Argentina and Brazil) the new varieties are harvested and mixed with other types in the commodity stream. As far as the growers and traders are concerned, one variety of soy or maize is the same as another, with its price determined by the protein content.

Not so in the European Union, where every new genetic trait has to be individually approved, and even a trace of a non-approved genetic event in a bulk shipment is sufficient for it to be rejected. No matter that these new varieties have been approved after rigorous risk assessment in the growing country, in Europe their presence is absolutely banned. Of course, EU regulators have every right to conduct their own risk assessment before approval. The problem is that the system is so far behind the rest of the world that the number of unapproved traits is building up, increasing the chances that a few grains here and there will be detected and cause large shipments to be rejected.

The popular perception is that Europeans are more cautious and that approvals are not being granted because there are concerns about safety. Not so. Risk assessments – extremely rigorous risk assessments – are done for each application by independent expert scientists on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority, who overwhelmingly concur with the judgements of their fellow scientists in the USA and elsewhere.

However, politicians then make the decisions, in many cases choosing to ignore the best scientific advice on offer in order to oppose approvals. They do so not because the majority of their populations necessarily wish them to do so, but because green lobby groups have persuaded them that this is the case. It's a bit like allowing court cases to be decided by phone-in votes based on television reports rather than by a judge and jury present for the whole trial.

Because there has to date never been a qualified majority by the Council of Ministers to either approve or reject an application, the final decision has been made by the Commission, which so far has always accepted the scientific advice and approved the application. However, these applications have (since the lifting of the effective embargo a few years ago) been for import rather than cultivation. Following the routine indecisive vote in the Council, the Commission now has to make the final decision on approval of two GM crops for cultivation, and this time the Commission itself is playing politics.

Environment Commissioner Dimas has indicated that he intends to reject the positive recommendation from EFSA, in deference to the powerful green lobby, despite opposition from many of his colleagues, including Agriculture Commissioner Fischer Boel. If he succeeds in blocking these applications, surely the final nail will have been driven into the coffin of the current approval system. Europe will have turned its back on rational scientific advice and laid course for the unsustainable policy cul-de-sac of pretending to be "GM-free".

The reality is different. The European livestock industry simply cannot exist in its present form without importing large quantities of vegetable protein. By far the largest part of this is genetically modified, but based on genetic traits approved in the EU some time ago. Increasingly, the commodity stream will contain traces of new varieties, as yet unapproved and hence illegal. The EU will have to choose either to decimate its meat industry or revamp its regulations and approvals process. If it is the former, consumers will increasingly have to buy imported meat, which will have been fed on the very same GM grain we are so reluctant to allow in. We can only hope that the now-obvious contradictions and tensions are sufficient to force an overhaul of the process.

Agricultural biotechnology elsewhere

In the meantime, the rest of the world carries on. The latest report from the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, brief 37) shows that 2007 was another year of double-digit growth for crop biotechnology, with plantings of GM seed up from 102 million to 114.2 million hectares. There has been a big boost to maize in the US, driven mainly by the current enthusiasm for bio-ethanol, but cotton has also been a conspicuous success.

In India, for example – now the world's largest cotton producer – Bt cotton sowings have increased from 50,000 ha in 2002 to 6.2 million ha in 2007. 3.8 million poor farmers are the beneficiaries, no longer having to spray regularly against the most destructive insect pests and now seemingly making a living from reliable increased yields. There has been a similar enthusiastic uptake by small farmers in China.

Maize remains the only GM crop approved for growing in the EU and, despite popular misconceptions, in 2007 was grown in eight countries: Spain, France, Portugal, Germany, Romania, the Czech republic, Slovakia and Poland. Admittedly, some of the areas were quite small, and some of these countries are now adopting an anti-GM stance (for example France, to the dismay of its farmers). It seems that farmers everywhere, given the option, will choose to try new technology, and stick with it if it works.

This, of course, is not the conclusion drawn by Friends of the Earth International in their latest report, "Who benefits from GM crops" (yes, the same Friends of the Earth whose European branch receives the largest part of its funding from the European Commission and spends this on what seems to be preaching to the converted). The obvious answer to the question is "farmers", but FoE instead focus on what they say is the large increase in pesticide use associated with GM crops. In so doing, they confuse quantities used with environmental impact, since the big increase has been in glyphosate use, and this is perhaps the most environmentally benign crop protection chemical ever used.

Not content with this, they continue to fight a rearguard action by cherry-picking facts and highlighting them out of context. The lack of yield increase in soy is a particular favourite, but their conclusion is based on evidence of maximum yield potential in controlled field trials, rather than actual results from real working farmers. Farmers pay a technology fee when they buy GM seed and will not do this unless they get a benefit. The FoE report, on the other hand, seems to assume that farmers are stupid and are willingly boosting Monsanto's profits without realising that they are getting no benefit.

It is difficult to take such reports seriously. This is a pity, because it is quite possible to learn from those you disagree with, if they are honest with presentation and interpretation of facts. We look forward to Friends of the Earth spending the European taxpayers' money more wisely and publishing something more objective next time around.