Saturday, March 6, 2010

Potato drags GM foods back to Europe

Genetically modified (GM) foods appear to be back on the European Union’s political menu – thanks to a potato.

Manufactured by the German chemical firm BASF, a potato named Amflora became the first GM crop to be authorised for cultivation by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, in 12 years Mar. 2.

It is unlikely that the same length of time will elapse before the next such approval is granted by Brussels officials. Files relating to 17 other GM crops – including varieties of maize, oilseed rape and more potatoes - are on those officials’ desk and awaiting a formal rubber-stamp.

Although many of the EU’s governments are opposed to the introduction of GM foods, the Commission’s most powerful representatives have long been eager to resume the approval of new varieties. Last year, it sought unsuccessfully to force France and Greece to ditch moratoria they had placed on the planting of Mon-810, a corn variety developed by the American multinational Monsanto.

EuropaBio, a group representing the biotechnology industry, notes that some of the crops under consideration in Brussels have been grown in north America for nearly two decades. Willy de Greef, the group’s secretary-general, said that food safety authorities have “thoroughly assessed” GM crops and found them to pose no threat. “But this has never stopped some of the anti-GM activists from selling the same old story,” he said.

BASF, for its part, has wasted no time in announcing that it has developed other types of potatoes, including one resistant to the type of blight widely assumed to have caused a famine that killed one million Irish people – one eighth of the country’s inhabitants – in the nineteenth century.

Claims that GM foods have been scientifically verified as safe and could cure global hunger will be familiar to anyone who has followed the often-heated debate about their effects. The cosy relationship between the scientists happy to give their blessing to these foods and the corporations that have invested heavily in them is not as well-known.

Amflora’s approval followed a positive opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy. Since its inception in 2002, the authority has delivered more than 40 assessments on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), all of them favourable. Its panel on GMOs is chaired by Harry Kuiper, a Dutchman who previously coordinated a scientific research programme involving three leading biotech firms: Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Greenpeace agriculture campaigner Marco Contiero complains that eighteen of the 21 scientists tasked by EFSA with analysing applications to plant GM foods are biochemists “with only one or two experts on the environment”.

“If we talk about releasing living organisms into the environment, we must have the advice of scientists who know about this,” he added. “The problem we have with EFSA is that it doesn’t have the means to carry out risk assessments or independent analysis of data submitted by companies.”

In relying on EFSA’s counsel, the European Commission has glossed over contradictory information provided by other authorities. The World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Evaluation Agency have both expressed concerns about issues related to Amflora, which contains a gene resistant to some antibiotics. While the potato’s starch is intended for industrial use – such as in glue manufacturing – biotech firms admit that its by-products are likely to be used for animal feed and could therefore enter the human food chain. Policy-makers on public health have warned that planting antibiotic resistant crops could undermine the effectiveness of several medicines deemed vital in treating diseases that affect humans.

The stakes could be particularly high in the case of Amflora, as it is designed to be resistant to neomycine and kanamycine, two drugs used to treat tuberculosis. Across the world 2 billion people are infected with TB, which takes 2 million lives per year. Yet John Dalli, the EU’s new commissioner for public health has defended his authorisation of Amflora. He told the TV channel Euronews that that the likelihood of the potato harming efforts to cut TB deaths is “so remote that the assessment is there is no danger at all to human life.”

Contiero, however, dismissed claims that GM foods will ultimately benefit humanity as “propaganda”. Far from offering the possibility of wonder foods that will make hunger history, biotech firms are intricately linked to an industrialised system of agriculture that helps exacerbate hardship. “Monsanto owns 90 percent of GMOs in the world,” he said. “And together with Bayer and Syngenta, it owns almost 50 percent of all seeds. The fact is that three companies – Bayer, BASF and Pioneer – also own 65 percent of the pesticide market. Biotech companies buy seed companies because this gives them a direct control of food production and food prices. Decision-makers should look very seriously at how they control food prices. This is an issue that people tend to forget.”

Originally published by Inter Press Service (

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