Last month the EU Commission approved a second GM crop for cultivation in the EU. Philip Case looks at what it means.
What was approved?
The Amflora potato, developed by BASF, which has been specifically designed to be used in the European potato starch industry. Europe produces about 2m tonnes of potato starch a year.
Conventional potato starch is a mixture of 80% amylopectin and 20% amylose, but only the amylopectin part is required for many industrial uses, such as paper, textiles and adhesives.
BASF has genetically engineered the Amflora potato to produce 98% amylopectin, which will save having to separate the two types of starch, and make the process more economic.
The potato will not be used for human consumption – it doesn’t have the right kind of properties – but a by-product could be used for animal feed.
First plantings of Amflora, for seed production, are expected in Germany and the Czech Republic this spring. Other countries with a starch potato industry include France, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Austria and Finland.
But Amflora is unlikely to be grown in the UK because our industrial starch is produced from other sources.
How was the decision reached?
It has been a long process. BASF first submitted a request for Amflora approval to the EU more than 13 years ago in Sweden in 1996. Between 1998 and 2004 there was a moratorium on approvals of GM crops.
After the EU modified its regulations BASF resubmitted information in 2003 for the cultivation of Amflora and in 2005 for its use in food and feed.
The European Food Safety Authority concluded in 2006 it was as safe for humans, animals and the environment as conventional potatoes for both types of use.
But politicians from around Europe failed to come to reach a decision either for or against cultivation, despite EFSA re-iterating it was safe in 2009.
Approval was finally granted for commercial plantings on 2 March 2010. It was the first approval for planting of a GM crop since 1998, when the MON810 trait for maize that protects against the European corn borer gained approval.
The decision was still controversial, why?
For starters, Friends of the Earth claim two other conventionally-bred potato varieties provide starch with the same characteristics as Amflora, and the GM version is not required.
And there is also specifically a concern about the presence of an antibiotic resistance marker gene in Amflora.
When trying to introduce new genes to produce a GM crop only a fraction of the attempts are successful. To easily identify which ones are, scientists associate the genes carrying the desired trait with a “marker gene.”
The marker genes used in Amflora is a gene that confers antibiotic resistance, so only the cells resistant to the specific antibiotic in question carries the desired trait and are kept after the selection process.
It is a system that is now considered out dated, but was commonly used in the early days of GM development, and according to anti-GM campaigners, could give rise to bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics used to control infections in humans.
What does EFSA say?
EFSA concluded in 2004 that the risk of transferring the antibiotic resistance from plant to bacteria was remote. It also noted that resistance to the antiobiotics used as markers in Amflora could already be found in soil and in bacteria in animal and human intestines.
In 2007 it changed its mind that the antibiotics used had only minor relevance in human medicine, and agreed that the preservation of the therapeutic relevance of them was important. But it restated both then and again in 2009 that the use of the gene within Amflora was safe, although two EFSA scientists in 2009 stated that the possibility of the transfer of antibiotic resistant genes to bacteria within the gastro-intestinal-tract could not be predicted.
What measures have been put in place to prevent Amflora getting into food chain?
There will be a contract between BASF and farmers and those in the starch industry that means the potatoes will be physically separated from potatoes for food or feed uses during planting, cultivation, harvest and storage and handling. The tubers will also be delivered exclusively to designated starch factories within a closed system.
Growers will also not be able to plant conventional potatoes in the same field the year following GM potatoes and the fields will be monitored the following growing season to destroy any volunteers.
The fact potatoes do not cross-pollinate with other potatoes to reproduce, unlike many other crops, and are harvested before they produce seeds should reduce the risk of inadvertently persisting in the environment.
What does the EU Commission’s approval mean for the future of GM crops in Europe?
It looks as though the EU Commission is adopting a more liberal stance on regulating GM crops. After years of political stalemate, both the new commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the EU commissioner for health and consumer policy, John Dalli, appear to want to have a more progressive policy for GM crops.
In his political guidelines presented in 2009, Mr Barroso stated it should be possible to combine a community authorisation system, based on science, with the freedom of EU Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops in their territory.
Mr Dalli has been tasked with come forward with such a “subsidiarity” policy by the summer.
Will it open the doors for more GM crop traits to be approved?
On the face of it, the new policy would appear to be good news for further approvals. While the likelihood of the European agricultural ministers agreeing in the medium term on an approval, it appears the EU Commission is willing to approve a trait stuck in the political quagmire if EFSA has deemed it safe.
But there is opposition from a number of quarters, including individual governments, as well as NGOs, which makes swift approvals unlikely.
However, the ability to decide whether to grow GM crops at individual country level is a sensible one on the basis EU agricultural ministers remain unlikely to come to a qualified majority on the issue.
Which countries may decide to ban GM crops?
Some countries remain firmly opposed to the cultivation of GM crops, arguing that they could reduce biodiversity and natural resistance to pests and disease. They are concerned that it could be hard to stop cross-pollination with non-GM crops.
Austria, Italy, Malta, and Bulgaria objected to the decision over Amflora. Austria said it would ban cultivation of the potato within its borders, while France said it would ask an expert panel for further research.
What about in the UK?
The UK government has a history of voting positively for GM traits in EU voting, and in the recently published food strategy document covering the next 20 years, it said the acceptance of GM crops was needed to create a “sustainable and secure food system for 2030”.
But both the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments have a stated policy of being GM-free.
What happens if individual governments choose to ban GM crop cultivation?
At the moment that is unclear. It could be argued that it is a step backwards for integrated EU policy and a single agricultural market.
Will products approved in one country be able to be imported into another one, for example? What would happen if a grower is farming in both England and Wales, for example, and Wales continues its GM-free policy?
Growers in GM-free countries could put pressure on their governments for access to GM crops, if they feel they cannot compete, which might speed up Europe’s take-up, or internal trade barriers could slow the whole process down incredibly. Either seems possible right now.
What other GM crop traits are close to reaching approval?
In Europe, 17 products await approval for cultivation and 46 await authorisation to be used for food and feed as well as to be imported and processed.
The European Commission will soon take decisions on three GM maize products that have received favourable EFSA opinions. Bt maize Bt11 from Syngenta and Bt Maize 1507 from Pioneer protect the maize against insects.
The third product, NK 603 from Monsanto is tolerant to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). It received a favourable EFSA opinion in 2009 and the Commission is reviewing Monsanto’s draft proposal.
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