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Newsletter 30th November 2007

- Scientists plead for rational approval of GM crops - GDP and wellbeing - Can Europe be the world leader in energy technologies?

Scientists plead for rational approval of GM crops

A few weeks ago, it was reported that EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas had proposed to reject approval applications for two varieties of insect-resistant, genetically modified maize. This is despite a positive recommendation from EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, and also in the teeth of opposition from Commissioners Mandelson (Trade), Verheugen (Industry) and Fischer Boel (Agriculture). On top of this now comes a public letter from the European Federation of Biotechnology, (an association of Learned Societies, Universities, Institutes, Companies and Individuals interested in the promotion of Biotechnology), which is highly critical of Dimas's proposal.

To quote from the letter, sent over the signature of Professor Marc van Montague, president of the EFB and doyen of European biotechnologists:

We consider that the draft decisions do not have a scientific basis and seem to be made without
considering the consequences for Europe or the fact that similar varieties have been growing in
Europe for the past 9 years with high adoption rates with no adverse environmental effects and
in coexistence with conventional and organic farming.

Concerning the scientific studies contained in your draft decisions, that claim to demonstrate
environmental risks presented by Bt maize, nine out of the eleven publications actually confirm
the environmental safety of Bt maize cultivation and in fact do not identify any environmental risk with respect to the cultivation of Bt maize in the EU.

The crux of the argument for rejection is that Bt proteins expressed in the maize varieties (which are actually very similar to the maize which has been grown in large quantities in Spain and, until President Sarkozy's surprise intervention, was achieving rapid uptake in France) could cause environmental damage by accumulating in watercourses and harming aquatic life. However, the suggestion was based on laboratory experiments rather than real observation, and bears a suspicious similarity to the infamous Monarch butterfly scare in the USA a few years ago.

In this case, research showed that butterfly larvae given no option but to eat milkweed leaves (their sole food) dusted with maize pollen containing Bt protein failed to thrive and had a higher mortality rate. However, in real life, despite vast acreages of Bt maize being grown year after year in the mid-West, Monarch butterfly populations stubbornly refused to plummet. The reality is that their migration and over-wintering in Mexico is by far the most important determinant of population size: low temperatures can decimate them, but in the summer the larvae just need sufficient milkweed to eat and tend to avoid leaves with high levels of pollen of any sort.

The latest scare, based on a tenuous extrapolation from in vitro experiments, has been seized on by the organic movement and environmental activists as proof positive that GM crops are dangerous and should be banned. Their influence of the environment commissioner is such that he is prepared to ignore sound scientific advice from EFSA and invoke the dreaded precautionary principle. Fortunately, some of his colleagues have chosen to make public their disagreement with this illogical, irrational and damaging decision.

This reflects the highly unusual nature of Commissioner Dimas's proposal. The decision process is such that national environment ministers vote largely in a political fashion, with a significant number – often a majority – choosing to oppose applications for approval of GM crops. However, there is never a qualified majority either for approval or rejection, so that the decision passes by default to the Commission, which up till now has always taken the advice of the EU's own expert risk assessors in EFSA. Disagreement in the Commission on such an issue is highly unusual.

Already, we see the ratcheting-up of ever more stringent legislation on environmental topics, REACH and the current review of pesticides regulation being two cases in point. The long drawn-out, complex and politicised GM food approvals system did, at long last, seem to be working, albeit inefficiently. The Commission had been playing a rational and objective role in this, but there is a danger here that Dimas's action will put even this in jeopardy. If this is the way that Europe chooses to deal with new technologies, we only have ourselves to blame if we decline into a backward-looking economic backwater in a dynamic world.

GDP and wellbeing

Gross domestic product per capita has for many years been the metric by which countries measure their growth and development. However, recently, more people have begun to question whether progress can really be measured only in economic terms. Essentially, the thesis is that, since money doesn't buy happiness, we should find some more "holistic" measures of development and quality of life. And one of the big criticisms of GDP is that it tells us nothing about how the economic cake is divided up. The Commission is now looking at this issue, doubtless taking account of such measures as the UN's Human Development Index and the WWF's Ecological Footprint.

This feels a bit like a revival of the "Limits to Growth" movement of the 1970s. But, while there is nothing wrong with trying to measure happiness or quality of life, it will almost certainly prove to be an impossible task to do anything meaningful. The concept conjures up visions of measuring progress by consumer survey, with results depending on what the weather is like or the results of football matches.

No-one would suggest that money can buy happiness. But the lack of it can certainly cause misery, and the stubborn refusal of poverty to go away in developed countries, despite the best efforts of successive governments shows the difficulty of dealing with this. Economic growth at least increases a country's overall wealth and gives the wherewithal to improve infrastructure and services, with the intention of improving people's lives. Individuals whose income increases have the freedom to use their resources and to create their own happiness as they see fit. Unfortunately, the downside of humankind's unique adaptability and capacity for innovation is a restlessness and tendency not to be satisfied. Whether or not we focus away from purely economic development, nothing will change this.

Can Europe be the world leader in energy technologies?

Recently, the Commission launched its Strategic Energy Technology plan, aiming to boost renewables technology and make Europe a leader in the field. Nurturing new technologies is always to be welcomed, but the EU must resist the temptation to back winners. Anything can be made to seem successful if it receives a high enough subsidy but, at some point, it must have a chance of becoming economically viable. So, anything which improves investment in genuinely new or radically improved technologies, at least to the demonstration phase, is good, but continuing to subsidise conventional solar panels or wind turbines beyond a certain point is not money well spent.

As usual, there is an ambition to become a world leader in the sector. Ambition is good, but it must be tempered with realism. Nearly all initiatives of this sort have fallen short of their goals. The Galileo positioning system has just been rescued, but seems an unnecessary and unjustified prestige project. Restrictive regulation (as for GM crops) seems set to reduce our innovative capacity and competitiveness. Meanwhile, the chances of meeting even the revised Lisbon agenda goals are slim at best (perhaps this is why GDP per capita is no longer seen as an appropriate primary measure of development). The EU should put in place a framework within which both the public and private sectors can innovate effectively, but should not attempt to do central planning of technology.