Greece lubricates stalled GM crops debate

The old adage says you should beware of Greeks bearing gifts – a reference to the Wooden Horse of Troy. However the Greek EU presidency is attempting to bring a gift, in the shape of a deal to end years of stalemate over the approval and use of GM crops.

The suggestion from the presidency, despite Greece being in the opposition camp on GM crops, is that approval procedures in the EU should be simplified, and in return Member States would be allowed to decide whether or not to grow the GM crop approved. This would allow decisions to be made on scientific grounds, while giving individual Member States the power to decide on socio-economic or environmental grounds whether to grow GM crops. This would have to be done in consultation with the company whose product is the subject of the challenge – and the grounds would have to be separate to those already considered by the European Food Safety Authority as part of the approval process.

This thinking appears to have support, although some Member States, including the UK, have suggested it’s a compromise that could undermine free trade between Member States.

Over GM crops the public and 12 Member States, including their scientific advisers, are more ready to follow the views of pressure groups than the EU’s own scientific adviser, Professor Ann Glover, or indeed the European Food Safety Authority. Continuously kicking an issue into touch and using procedural voting rules to avoid decisions is not policy making. Take away the EU politics and the reality is that the rest of the world is marching on with GM, with no regard to what Europe’s doing.

Figures published recently confirm the degree to which GM crops have been taken up elsewhere. Last year, 18 million farmers in 27 countries grew GM crops. The area planted was 175m hectares, meaning there’s been a hundred-fold increase in 18 years. Each of the top 10 countries planted more than a million hectares, meaning that in those countries GM crops are the norm.

For the second year in a row more GM crops were planted in developing than developed economies, with countries such as India, China and Brazil viewing GM as a way to increase productivity and reduce costs. Significantly they also cite the benefits, in term of fewer chemical sprays and less fuel for field activities. Interestingly Europe grew around 150,000ha of GM crops on a commercial scale, mainly in Spain, and, perhaps surprisingly, Romania.

Whether you like or loathe GM crops the science is now global. If you were an investor looking for future growth GM science looks like a good area for your funds. A major reason is that the science going into plant breeding is focused on using GM as the main tool for development.

This whole debate raises moral and social issues, and research trends are moving away from better pest and disease resistance or better crop yields into more complex benefits. Drought resistance is now a big driver in GM crops and drought is the biggest constraint to grain production in Africa.

The most interesting moral argument, however, is over a GM rice, known as golden rice. This variety successfully tackles vitamin A deficiency in Asia, which causes over 600,000 deaths a year in children under five. Yet it is being opposed by mainstream activist environmental groups, simply because it is based on GM science.

These are complex issues, but regardless of where they stand on the science, the 500m citizens of Europe are not being served well by Member States’ governments and a European Commission that put their collective heads in the sand about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

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