A History of Biotech in Europe and the Path Forward

Biotech in Europe: History and the Path Forward

An interview with Beat Späth, Director for Agricultural Biotechnology at EuropaBio

This year, the European Union approved three new biotech soya bean products for import.  We spoke with Beat Späth, director for agricultural biotechnology at EuropaBio, about the history of plant science, what the new approvals mean for plant biotech, and how the regulatory process is working in Europe.

Brussels, 21 May 2015. Photos vivianhertz.be

Let’s start with a history of GM crops in Europe.

Europe was the birthplace of agricultural biotechnology more than three decades ago. Some of the leading scientists are still based in Europe, but because of various political factors — driven in large part by misperceptions about the safety and benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops — Europe is becoming known for its resistance to plant biotechnology. Today, most European farmers aren’t able to benefit from the technology and grow biotech crops, even though Europe still imports and uses biotech crops. In fact, today we pay mostly with GM cotton bank notes, wear GM-based cotton clothing, and each year we feed our farm animals an amount of GM soybeans roughly equivalent to the combined weight of all EU citizens. On the other hand, cultivation is limited to only a few countries, most notably Spain, and to only one maize variety. Our farmers are missing out on a significant economic and competitive opportunity.

But the EU approved three new genetically modified soya bean products for import earlier this year. Isn’t this good news for biotechnology in Europe?

It is true that the EU Commission finally authorized three new, genetically modified soya bean products for import, but it took the EU much longer than it should have to approve those products. Even the EU’s ombudsman ruled earlier this year that GM approval decisions shouldn’t take more than 3.5 months at the very last stage of the decision-making process, since at that point, crops have already gone through several years of procedures, including a thorough risk assessment process. These recent approvals took more than six months, so something is still wrong with the implementation of the EU’s current authorization process. Furthermore, while approved imports are allowed, GM cultivation is still prohibited in the majority of EU countries despite the multiple benefits that biotechnology provides.

What needs to happen for farmers to benefit from the technology?

First and foremost, the EU’s existing GMO authorization system needs to be properly implemented. This means that safe products should be authorized within legally foreseen timelines.

Despite importing significant amounts of GM soya beans and thereby benefiting from GM trade, many member states vote against the science. Decision makers should honor their responsibilities within the existing EU legislation and forcefully defend science-based decisions against unfounded scaremongering.

To what do you attribute the resistance to GM crops in the EU?

Various factors have played a role, ranging from anti-GMO fear-mongering by some anti-technology critics and activists to unjustified national bans on GMO cultivation. Perhaps most importantly, indecisiveness in the EU approval process of GM crops, even for GMO imports, is eroding trust in the technology at the expense of innovation. The fact that many Member States never agree to approve safe GMOs, supposedly because of lack of public trust, perpetuates a vicious cycle of fear that further erodes confidence.  Objections to biotech crops that have passed rigorous safety studies are often based on arbitrary and vaguely defined reasons that are not related to science.

How do import approval delays affect producers and farmers growing biotech crops?

Trade in soya beans and GM approvals are closely linked to each other and to the growing season. A delay in expected product approvals, even if only of a few weeks, can cost producers millions of Euros in lost sales depending on the sowing season. Since the EU is so reliant on soya bean imports as a major source for animal feed, delays can also come at the expense of feed market stability. In fact, European livestock farmers rely on imports to cover approximately 70 percent of their need for protein-rich crops and the largest share of vegetable proteins comes from imported soya beans, the vast majority of which are GM. A recent study shows that stopping soy imports into the EU-28 would cause economic losses of nearly €30 billion per year for the EU.

How can European consumers be assured that biotech products are safe?

The evidence is clear: the relevant public authorities and academies of science have said that GMOs are just as safe as conventionally bred crops. GM food and feed imports or cultivation of GM crops can only be authorized in the EU following a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Our public authorities could improve their communication to help people distinguish between real and perceived food-related risks. And it is at least equally important that they end the vicious circle mentioned above, simply by basing their decisions on the science and defending them against unfounded scaremongering.