Student - November 27, 2008


Wageningen plant scientists are arguing louder and louder for the acceptance of genetically modified crops (GMOs) in Europe. Countries such as the US, Brazil and China are already developing and cultivating GM crops on a large scale, and research shows that the health and environmental risks are limited. So it’s high time for a European GM revolution. Do we agree on this?

Dr. Bert Visser, the director of the Netherlands Centre for Genetic Resources: ‘Yes, the time has come for GM crops, but with a big ‘if’. Gene technology is expensive and the mass of rules and regulations makes it even more so. The market therefore ends up in the hands of a small number of big players, such as Monsanto and Syngenta.
If they dictate both supply and prices, you get an unequal balance of power between the buyers and the sellers of seeds. And they only invest in the crops for which there is the highest consumer demand among the rich, and not in an important food crop such as the banana, for example.

For this reason, the public sector must invest in gene technology. And that is why the import regulations for GM crops should be simplified, so that smaller companies can get into the market too. The regulations are aimed at ensuring food safety and preventing negative effects on the environment. But by now, a lot of research has been done and experience gained with GM crops, mainly outside Europe, and although you can never rule out problems, so far the risks seem to be limited. So the regulations are behind the times. It’s time to speed up public GM research in the interests of global food security.’

For Professor Frans Brom, head of Technology Assessment at the Rathenau Institute and associate professor of the Ethics of the Life Sciences at Wageningen University, ‘This is putting it the wrong way round, because it focuses on an instrument. It’s like saying ‘GMO product seeks purpose’. Wrong. The purpose is what it’s all about: Sustainable agriculture or producing resources in the world. The question is whether there is added value in using GM for this purpose instead of other technologies.

I think that GMOs definitely do have added value for food production, but you do have to bear in mind the social context of this production. There is still a big gap between the potential and the actual production in many parts of the world. Yet it’s not the crop that causes the bottlenecks but the business management, the infrastructure and the availability of water.
Fortunately, I haven’t heard anyone say that we can solve the global food problem with GM crops. That would be claiming a monopoly on the solution. With any technology you must ask: Can the farmers work with it? And do the consumers want it? By seeing GMOs as potentially one part of the solution, you remain open to working with others to improve food production. European import regulations for GMOs are so complex, time-consuming and expensive that they play into the hands of the monopolizers. But don’t bet on those European regulations being relaxed any time soon – The Netherlands is known in Europe for its GMO-friendly stance.’

Piet Schenkelaars of Schenkelaars Biotechnology Consultancy and co-author of ‘Harvest from the lab’ in 1988 and 2008, says: ‘The GM crops which are imported into Europe up to now are of little interest for Dutch agriculture. But there is now a transgenic maize that gives protection against the root beetle, a harmful insect that is on the increase in Europe. If Dutch farmers start growing this new GM breed of fodder maize, then the question is whether Campina will buy milk from dairy farmers who use GM fodder. Wageningen’s cis gene potato (resistant to phytoflora) and cis gene apple (resistant to apple scab) are interesting. I understand that the scientists involved want more relaxed import regulations, as an import procedure for GM crops costs an average of seven million euros. That’s an awful lot of money for a small business or a research organization. Maybe they will find legal constructions for reducing the costs. You could do precompetitive research together to show that cisgenesis is safer than transgenesis, and that this innovation is the best solution for sustainable agriculture.’

Henk van Latestijn, director of the Agrarisch Dagblad’s Transforum innovation programme, comments: ‘The endless discussion about the pros and cons of GM food has just led to rigid standpoints and tunnel vision. We need to get on with some experiments. The cabinet has decided that the use of pesticides in fruit cultivation must be cut by 95% by 2010. With GM techniques you can produce new varieties which are resistant to diseases and fungi. We want to get away from pesticides, we’ve got the technology to do it, but the current rules and regulations make it difficult for us to apply it. We must conduct controlled experiments to achieve sustainability in many different ways. Then it will become clear whether, for example, crossing the boundaries between species is a step too far.’