The European Union today approved the first new genetically modified (GM) crop for domestic growing in more than a decade, ending what has been a long stalemate over a backlog of GM crops awaiting cultivation approval.
The decision by the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, will allow farmers to grow Amflora potatoes, a controversial GM crop developed by the German chemical giant BASF. The potatoes can be used solely for industrial or animal feed purposes, the bloc said.
The potatoes, engineered to produce high levels of starch for use in paper production or textiles, are the first crop to be approved for farming since a strain of Monsanto's insect-resistant corn 12 years ago. That decision set off a storm of protest from European countries, some of which, like Austria and Germany, have invoked science-based protection clauses to prevent the corn's growth (Greenwire, Oct. 21, 2009).
The decision also raises the possibility that other GM crops could soon win cultivation approval, including Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn, which is engineered to resist the glyphosate herbicide. Corn containing Monsanto's Roundup-resistant gene currently dominates U.S. farming but has not gained a foothold so far in Europe. Such approval could come soon, the bloc noted.
Along with the cultivation approval, the commission announced that it would proceed with plans to allow European countries to independently decide if GM crops can be grown in their borders. The move, long expected, is a remarkable turnabout for an institution that has traditionally focused on creating a single European market for nearly every industry, including agriculture.
Biotech, chemical and seed companies have long railed against what they viewed as stall tactics in the commission against approving new GM crop varieties for growing this past decade. In announcing the decision, the European Union's new health commissioner, John Dalli, said all fears about the potato's use had been satisfied.
"Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies. After an extensive and thorough review ... it became clear to me that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessment," Dalli said. "All scientific issues, particularly those concerning safety, had been fully addressed. Any delay would have simply been unjustified."
The Amflora potatoes were the first GM crop to win approval because there is a demand for them in several European countries, industry sources said. The potato will be planted in Germany and the Czech Republic this year, with additional plantings likely to come in Sweden and the Netherlands, the European Union said.
The potatoes have been criticized by health officials and environmental groups not for their primary genetic modification, which silences a protein expression, but for their use of antibiotic-resistance genes as markers -- genetic signposts that are needed to easily evaluate whether the silencing techniques have been successful.
Some scientists and environmental groups fear that the marker gene used in Amflora potatoes, which is important for resistance to several infectious diseases, could be taken up by bacteria, increasing their virulence. A review last year by the European Food Safety Authority said such a risk is remote and confirmed the potato as safe to cultivate, though two EFSA members dissented on the decision.
The use of antiobiotic-resistance genes as markers has gone out of fashion in the biotech world, and BASF's efforts to use a potato engineered more than 15 years ago are anachronous, said Marco Contiero, the E.U. policy director on genetic engineering for Greenpeace.
"The use of antibiotic resistance genes as markers is an old technique that has been abandoned," Contiero said. "Biotech companies nowadays use alternative methods to develop GM plants. Since antibiotic resistance in human and animals is a widely recognized medical problem, any unnecessary use of this technology in plants would be totally irresponsible."
Contiero said he was flummoxed that a crop using antibiotic-resistance genes was the first to be approved by the European Union.
"Of all the applications, this is the most problematic," he said.
Several GM crops authorizing for sale, but not growing, in the European Union do contain similar resistance genes, the commission noted, including corn and cotton varieties developed by Monsanto.
In some ways, the GM potatoes raise less concern about their unintentional spread, since potatoes do not spread through cross pollination, and are instead vegetatively propagated. The potatoes must also be cultivated prior to producing seeds, to avoid any risk of dissemination, the European Union said.
The approval also mandates strict separation between the GM potatoes and organic and GM-free varieties. (Unlike the United States, European countries are required to label products that have been genetically engineered.) Through contracts with farmers, BASF will oblige contracting farmers to isolate GM potatoes throughout the product chain and deliver the tubers exclusively to starch processing plants.
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