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Relaxing of E.U.’s Rules for Genetically Modified Crops

It’s time to loosen E.U.’ draconian regulations on genetically modified crops, note a team of biotech experts. According to a report released recently, genetically modified crops have been used safely for decades, and hence they no longer need to be automatically viewed as unsafe things. Meanwhile, scientists say that genetically modified crops should be reclaimed from multinational companies and used as a public good.

 “This time, we are not dealing with a new technology,” says Jim Dunwell of the University of Reading, UK. Genetically modified crops have been studied for 31 years and grown for two decades commercially. “The assumption that it’s not safe is no longer valid.”

In E.U., every new GM crop is evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and is only approved for growing if a majority of EU states have an agreement. However, since EU is split between countries that support and oppose GM crops, the agreement is seldom reached. Thus, only one GM crop, a variety of maize, has been allowed for planting since 1998. As a comparison, the US has approved 96 GM crops since 1990.

EU's GM supporting campaigns

E.U. countries hold different opinions on GM crops. In this figure, countries marked with green indicate that they support GM crops, while countries in red are against. *Image source: Maite Sabalza,etc.EU legitimizes GM crop exclusion zones.

Dunwell and his co-workers at the UK governments’ Council for Science and Technology note that it would be better if every country has its own regulator. In this way, if EFSA approves a GM crop, nations can decide by themselves whether or not to allow it to be grown on their land.

The group has also sent this proposal to UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Earlier this year, UK’s environment minister Owen Paterson also suggested that the regulation of GM crops in Europe should be loosened.


The report, GM Science Update, mentions that the health and environmental problems predicted by GM crop opponents when they were firstly used have not materialized.  For example, there are no reports of people being ill after having GM food, and there have been few confirmed cases of the added genes spreading to wild plants.

And of course, there are some practical problems on farms due to the wide planting of GM crops – nearly 80 percent of the world’s cotton and soy now are products from genetically modified crops.

One of the most widely used applications so far have been in-built resistance to weedkillers – usually glyphosate or Roundup – and to pests, generally by giving the crops a bacterial gene that makes it to produce Bt toxins. However, some weeds now have become resistant to glyphosate and some pests can resist Bt toxins.

Actually, these problems “have nothing to do with GM, but with agricultural practices”, says Dunwell. The latest GM crops can defy several weedkillers and pests, and therefore, if for example a weed becomes resistant to one kind of the weedkillers, farmers can choose to spray it with something else without damaging their crop.

 “After 20 years’ experience, we understand that we can manage the rate of evolution of the weeds,” says Jonathan Jones, co-author who is at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK.

Going public

Jones points out that compared with conventional crops, the extra regulatory requirements for GM crops can add as much as $20 million to the cost of getting a crop approved. Consequently, only several multinational companies afford the approval process, solidifying their control of GM technology. However, in recent years, even multinationals such as Monsanto and BASF have deserted Europe since it’s too difficult and expensive to get GM crops approved.

Dunwell says the high cost also means that some useful traits such as drought-tolerance developed in labs can never be sufficiently tested or made available for the public.

To solve this issue, the scientists are now suggesting the creation of a new UK public body that is responsible for testing crops with new traits to see if they work and represent a public good. They call this new body as “PubGM” and this body would accept ideas from new areas of study from the public. The idea is to shift GM research from multinational companies.

GM crop opponents are skeptical about this idea. Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK, a non-profit group that monitors GM technology, says that even if beneficial traits were successfully tested by PubGM, multinational companies could still buy up patents on them.


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