Briefing paper – full text

 

BRIEFING PAPER , JUNE 2012

EU GMO POLICIES, SUSTAINABLE FARMING, AND PUBLIC RESEARCH

This briefing paper is produced by public-sector scientists active in biotechnology research and farmers organisations that subscribe to the freedom of farmers to use the crops they find best suited for their needs, including genetically modified (GM) crops that have been approved through the European Union’s regulatory system.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

The farmers and public-sector scientists contributing to this paper support the call of Mr. John Dalli,

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, for a more informed and less polarised debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and offer this briefing paper as a contribution.

 

This briefing paper addresses:

 

Global challenges in agriculture – By 2050 farmers need to produce 70% more food with less impact on the environment and on less land. “Sustainable intensification” requires, among other things, that farmers have crops that provide a higher yield per hectare, make better use of water, and are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers.

Public sector research – Modern biotechnology can contribute significantly to addressing these challenges, because it can help overcome some limitations of conventional breeding. Much public sector research aims at developing crops that have, for example, increased resistance against diseases and pests, and enhanced nutrition.

Experiences with GM crops to date – Worldwide, many GM crop varieties have been grown for many years on over hundreds of millions of hectares by over millions of farmers, resulting in significant economic, social, health and environmental benefits. In the EU, only two types of GM crops are approved for cultivation, and in several EU countries growing these GM crops is banned. Meanwhile, the EU imports large quantities of GM commodities grown outside the EU.

The EU regulatory framework – The EU regulatory system for GMOs is not functioning, because many decisions are not taken within the time frames and/or are not based on the legal criterion of scientifically sound risk assessment. There are various regulatory proposals to address the current impasse. Some of these proposals have met with concerns in relation to the Internal Market, WTO rules, the role of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and farming and research in general.

Survey among farmers and scientists – A pilot survey has been conducted in 12 EU countries to assess: 1) the potential role of GM crops in farming in the EU, 2) experiences of farmers, and 3)experiences of public-sector scientists.

The conclusions from the survey include:

  • There are many constraints in cultivating crops and trees in Europe for which conventional breeding has limited potential to provide adequate solutions, and for which biotechnological tools are already available or in an advanced stage of development.
  • Current GMO policies in the EU deprive farmers of potential benefits and of the freedom to choose.
  • In the 12 countries in which the survey was conducted there are farmers who wish to have the freedom to use the crops they find best suited for their needs, including approved GM crops.
  • Much public-sector biotechnology research for sustainable agriculture in Europe has been slowed, stopped or moved abroad, because of regulatory hurdles and costs to prevent destruction of field research.

The briefing paper ends with recommendations, including:

  • Governments and EU institutions are urged to execute the current regulatory system in the way they themselves designed it, while upholding the freedom of choice for farmers.
  • Farmers and public-sector scientists are called upon to better engage with the general public and policy makers.

Background information and references can be found on: www.greenbiotech.eu.

 

1.   GLOBAL CHALLENGES IN AGRICULTURE

The world community faces daunting challenges. Over 1 billion people are malnourished, often resulting in chronic diseases and premature deaths. Agriculture impacts the environment through pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, ploughing and conversion of natural habitats. The situation is compounded further by the growth of the world population and climate change.

According to the United Nations Food- and Agriculture Organisation (FA O), by 2050 the world will have to produce 70% more food on about the same area of land. The agricultural production of feed, fibre and biomass will also have to increase substantially, i.e. there is an urgent need for “sustainable intensification”. Agriculture represents a unique opportunity to address food security, CO2 emissions, dependency on fossil fuels, and employment. For that, farmers need, among other things, crops that provide a higher yield per hectare, make better use of water, are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, and have enhanced nutritional value.

As has been recognised repeatedly since the Earth Summit in 1992[1], no single technology can solve those complex challenges by itself, but modern biotechnology, in conjunction with conventional breeding, can contribute significantly to solving them.

Further background information.

 

2.   PUBLIC RESEARCH IN MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY

Modern biotechnology is a key enabling technology that can introduce specific changes in the genetic material of plants, animals and micro-organisms.

The potential of these techniques for crop plants and trees must be understood in the context of the limitations of conventional breeding:

  • Conventional breeding is limited in its capabilities of moving valuable genes between species. For example, a disease resistance trait in a wheat variety cannot be crossed into a maize plant.
  • Breeding a trait into a crop can take a very long time. For example, it can take apple breeders decades to introduce a disease resistance in apple varieties.
  • For some species, such as bananas, sexual crossing is extremely difficult if not impossible.
  • With conventional breeding not only the desired genes are crossed into the variety of choice, but also thousands other genes that might be undesirable.

To overcome the limitations of conventional breeding, scientists have developed techniques over the last few decades that have made it possible to:

  1. identify a specific gene responsible for a trait in an organism,
  2. isolate the gene that controls that trait,
  3. transfer it to cells through a process called “transformation”. Cells that carry the new gene are then regenerated to produce a plant whose progeny carry the new gene and express the desired trait.

Genetic engineering can be much faster than conventional breeding, is more precise than typical plant breeding approaches, and can be used to move genes that generally cannot be moved by standard genetic crossing.

The reason that in principle any gene from any organism (micro-organism, plant or animal) can be made to function in any other organism is because genes are made of DNA and the genetic code is universal in all organisms. In fact many genes found in one organism can also be found in another. For example, many genes of plants are also found in other plants, in fungi, in bacteria, and in animals.

Much of the current public research in modern agricultural biotechnology aims to strengthen the economic, social and/or environmental sustainability of the production of food, feed and biomass.

Governments and international organisations have over the past 30 years invested substantially, and continue to invest, in research and development of modern agricultural biotechnology.

The types of traits or characteristics that have been and are developed by scientists in public sector research include:

  • Increased tolerance to “biotic stress”, e.g.: resistance to disease and pests
  • Increased tolerance to “abiotic stress”, e.g.: tolerance to drought, saline soils and water
  • Enhanced nutritional value in traditional crops, e.g.: provitamin A, vitamin B9, vitamin E, iron, zinc, oil composition and high-quality protein
  • Other important characteristics, e.g.: herbicide tolerance, increasing nitrogen use efficiency, reducing existing levels of toxic or allergenic compounds, changing starch composition, increasing yield of seeds, adjusting morphology of crops.

Further background information.

 

3.   EXPERIENCES WITH GM CROPS TO DATE

Outside the EU, the introduction of GM crops has led to one of the most rapid, if not the fastest, adoption of an innovation in the history of agriculture. The large scale cultivation of GM crops by farmers started in 1996 with the introduction of herbicide tolerant soybean and canola, as well as insect-resistant maize and cotton. From 1996 onward the cultivation of GM crops on the global level has shown an over 10% yearly increase.

Data from 2011 show a worldwide GM crop cultivation area of 160 million hectares, in 29 countries, and involving over 15 million farmers half of whom manage small farms. The largest area of GM crop production is found in North America (Canada, USA), followed by South America (Argentina, Brazil), and Asia (China and India)[2].

Within the EU only two types of GM crops are approved for cultivation: genetically modified insect resistant maize, and a GM potato with a changed starch composition that allows processing with less energy, water and chemicals. In 2011, GM insect-resistant maize was planted on around 115,000 hectares in six EU countries, which was up 26% from 2010.

A range of peer-reviewed impact studies and specific case studies have analysed the environmental, socio-economic and productivity impact of these crops.

The conclusions of these reports can be summarised as follows:

  1. reduced herbicide use and improved soil management,
  2. decreased use of pesticides and lower mycotoxin levels,
  3. increased farmer income and farmer health due to increased yield and reduced use of  herbicides, insecticides, and fossil fuels.

Reduced herbicide use and improved soil management

The application of herbicide tolerance in crops such as soybean, maize, oilseed rape and cotton has significantly reduced yield losses due to weeds. In addition, it has allowed farmers to replace the use of more persistent herbicides by less persistent ones. As a consequence there is a decrease in chemical contaminants in runoff of water from farm lands, in subterranean water, and in streams. A third important impact of herbicide tolerant crops is that they promote the use of the so-called “no-till” systems of agriculture. This type of agriculture leaves the crop residues on the field after the harvest and does not plough them under in winter. These crop residues offer benefits such as decreased soil run-off and less erosion, better retention of moisture, a much better carbon sequestration, decreased use of machinery and fuel, and increased the humus content of the soil, which is positive for soil fertility and sustainable productivity. Calculations also show the positive impact of this strategy in terms of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Decreased use of pesticides and lower mycotoxin levels

Insect pests can cause serious crop damage. In Spain, for example, the European corn borer can cause farmers to lose up to 15 per cent of their maize yield in years with high insect infestation. In 2011, Spanish farmers cultivated almost 98,000 ha of GM insect tolerant MON810 maize. The introduction of GM insect-tolerant crops has led to a significant decrease in the amount of insecticides used. Decreased insecticide use has a beneficial environmental impact, as well as beneficial impact on farmer health. Calculations based on data from 2002 to 2004 in Spain showed that, primarily due to reduced pesticide spraying, there was an economic benefit to farmers from growing the GM insect-resistant maize ranging from € 3 to € 135 per ha. In addition, the introduction of insect resistance in maize has led to a decline in the presence of some cancer-causing mycotoxins, produced by fungi that commonly infest corn kernels following insect damage. The insect-resistant maize has less insect damage resulting in reduced opportunities for fungal infestation, resulting in a reduction of mycotoxin levels. In field trials in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and France, and in real life situations in Spain, GM insect-resistant maize contained up to 100 times less of these mycotoxins compared to conventional maize, depending on agroecology and insect infestations.

Further background information .

Assessment of unintended effects on human health or the environment

All GM crops that are cultivated worldwide have been subject to rigorous risk assessments before their commercial use, as well as to various approaches of surveillance to identify unintended adverse effects on human health or the environment. In addition, over the last decades hundreds of millions Euros have been spent on risk assessment research, within and outside the EU.

An analysis of the substantial amount of information included in risk assessment reports, surveillance documentation, and risk assessment research reports shows the following:

  • The techniques of genetic engineering carry no inherent risks. The report titled “EU Commission-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (1985-2000)”[3], stated that “The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and foods.” The European Commission report titled “A decade of EU-funded GMO research, 2001-2010”[4], which analysed research projects of over more than 400 independent research groups, concluded that “Biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.
  • The traits that have been introduced in plants to date are to a large extent the type of traits – such as insect resistance, disease resistance and herbicide tolerance – that are already present in many crop plants, or have been introduced by traditional breeding techniques.
  • After over 25 years with thousands of field trials with GMOs and after over 16 years of commercial planting of GM crop varieties on over a billion hectares, a substantial body of knowledge and experience has accumulated. There are no substantiated cases of adverse effects on human health or the environment resulting from the genetic modification.

This latter conclusion leaves of course unchanged that unwise use of GM crops can cause unintended effects, as is the case of unwise use of any tool. For example, indiscriminate use of herbicides can result in resistance development in weeds. These effects are not the result of the genetic modification, but of poor agronomic practices, which can occur in the same way with conventionally bred herbicide tolerant plants.

Further background information.

 

4.   THE EU REGULATORY FRAMEWORK FOR GMOS

The current EU regulatory framework

The EU legislation on GMOs originally came into force in 1990 and was amended about 10 years later when the EU regulatory framework for GMOs was complemented with EU Regulations.

The current, comprehensive regulatory framework for GMOs in the EU consists of various Directives and Regulations:

  • Directive 2009/41/EC on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms
  • Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms
  • Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed
  • Regulation (EC) No 1830/2003 on labelling and traceability of GMOs
  • Regulation (EC) No 1946/2003 on the transboundary movements of GMOs

These Directives and Regulations are complemented by various Decisions and guidelines.

Further background information.

 

The functioning of the current regulatory framework 

Two evaluation reports commissioned by the European Commission (reference) show widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which the EU regulatory system for GMOs is implemented.

The procedures for field trials and product approvals of Directive 2001/18 and Regulation 1829/2003 are not functioning as they are designed, because routinely the legal timelines are exceeded (reference). In addition, in several EU member states, the cultivation of one or both of the EU approved GM crops is banned without scientifically sound justification as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated on repeated occasions. At the same time, the EU imports every year the equivalent of over 15 million ha of GM crops to feed its livestock sector, resulting in a distortion of competition.

 

Initiatives for regulatory reform

The European institutions and Member States have taken various initiatives with the aim to improve the current situation.

Two regulatory proposals currently under discussion are:

  • The “cultivation nationalisation” proposal, which aims to allow Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of EU approved GMOs.
  • Transformation of EFSA guidance into a Regulation.

These proposals have met with concerns about the Internal Market, WTO rules, the role of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and farming and research in general.

Further background information.

 

5.   SURVEY AMONGST FARMERS AND PUBLIC SECTOR RESEARCHERS .

To contribute to a more informed debate on GMOs, the contributors to this briefing paper

have conducted a pilot survey among scientists and farmers to assess:

  1. The need for GM crops in the EU
  2. Experiences of farmers who use GM crops and of farmers who are not allowed to do so
  3. Experiences of public sector scientists developing and testing GMOs.

To assess the need for GM crops in the EU, the survey evaluated:

  1. key crops grown in the different countries, and major constraints faced by farmers in growing these crops, such as pests, diseases, drought, etc.
  2. for each of these constraints, the following aspects were addressed:
    • The consequences of these constraints, for example as a percentage of yield loss
    • Current management practices, such as pesticide use
    • Relevant biotechnological research in the public sector in the country, including a description of the research, the current status and contact points.

This pilot survey was conducted among farmers’ organisations and public sector research institutes in 12 EU Member States.

Per country a summary was prepared outlining key agricultural crops grown in the country (based on acreage and value), including major challenges faced by farmers in growing these crops. A brief (and by no means exhaustive) snap shot of the on-going and planned public sector biotechnology research aimed at addressing these challenges was outlined.

The results of the pilot survey can be found under the page ‘Survey’ .

 

6.   CONCLUSIONS OF THE SURVEY

The results of the survey allow for the following conclusions:

  • There is a large variety of constraints in many of the crops and trees cultivated in Europe that limit the potential to move towards sustainable agriculture and the full use of renewable resources within the bioeconomy. These constraints include an expanding range of pests and diseases, and stress factors such as drought and flooding, as well as the need to increase yields on the same land acreage with lower inputs.
  • These constraints can result in, among other things, significant losses of crop yield.
  • Current practices to address these constraints include substantial use of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, bactericides, fertilisers, ploughing, irrigation, as well as the use of chemicals, energy and water during production of agricultural chemicals and during farming operations. Yield losses in the EU mean increased imports from third countries, leading in these countries to higher prices and lower local supplies. Already today, the EU has a considerable extra-territorial footprint in the agricultural systems of third countries.
  • The options for conventional breeding to address these constraints are often limited, sometimes absent or can take a very long time to produce results.
  • Biotechnological tools that can help overcome many of these constraints are already available or in advanced stage of development.
  • In countries where approved GM crops were grown commercially, various studies confirm that, while the impacts may vary from case to case, overall anticipated environmental, human health, social and economic benefits have been realised.
  • Research conducted at the University of Reading shows that if farmers in the EU had access to the same GM crops to which millions of farmers outside the EU have access, the European farming community could annually increase its income by more than 400 Million Euro[7].
  • Research conducted by the Technische Universität München in 3 EU countries shows that as a result of national bans on EU approved GM crops farmers in some EU countries are deprived from an additional tool that could help them reduce pesticide use and increase yield and income[8].
  • The above studies came to these conclusions while only looking at the GM crops that are currently available. The potential for additional environmental and socio-economic benefits will increase multifold when taking into consideration other crops and constraints such as other diseases, pests, drought, flooding, and other characteristics that are important for biofuels, biocoatings, composition and morphology. Agricultural biotechnology is still a young technology but the field is rapidly developing.
  • In all the countries in which the survey was conducted there are farmers who wish to have the freedom to grow the crops they find best suited for their needs, including GM crops that have been approved through the EU regulatory system. Increasingly, these farmers are getting organised on the national and EU level.
  • It is also clear from the survey that farmers are sometimes hesitant to use approved GM crops, because of the additional administrative burden, and/or fear that their crops may be destroyed.
  • Much public sector research in agricultural biotechnology in Europe has been slowed, stopped or moved abroad, because of increasing regulatory hurdles and costs to prevent destruction of field research.

Further background information.

 

7.       RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. As was emphasised in a recent G20 statement, governments and EU institutions are urged t target R&D programmes on key constraints in agricultural production
  2. Research institutes and farmers organisations are called upon to collaborate in further developing the survey database of crops, constraints, and biotechnological approaches, to facilitate exchange of information and experiences.
  3. Governments and EU institutions are urged to implement the current regulatory system in th way they themselves designed it, i.e. science based, transparent, predictable and with respect for legal time frames and the legal criteria for decision making, and upholding the freedom of choice for farmers.
  4. Research institutes, and farmers’ organisations are called upon to engage with the general public and policy makers in a dialogue about the current urgent challenges in agricultural production, and of the role that modern biotechnology can play in helping to find solutions for the current challenges
  5. There is a need for increased and regular participation by European farmers and farmers’ organisations in the national and EU-wide dialogues regarding the regulatory framework for GMOs. This would contribute to a better-informed debate, particularly regarding the practical experiences with regulatory procedures for commercial cultivation, notifications, co-existence measures, and the like. It would also help the debate on actual socio economic and environmental impacts from GMO cultivation.
  6. Similarly, public-sector scientists should have a continued and more prominent role in current and future discussions on biotechnology in the EU. Our survey has demonstrated the range of “second generation” traits under investigation in public sector research organization and universities – going well beyond insect resistance and herbicide tolerance – all of which could have a major positive impact on farming practices, and food quality and safety. As the EU wishes to move towards a “Knowledge Based Bio-Economy”, this type of advanced research should be actively supported.

Contributors to this briefing paper

  • Association Générale des Producteurs de Maïs (AGPM, France, www.agpm.com )
  • AgroBiotechRom (Romania, www.agrobiotechrom.ro )
  • Conservation Agriculture Association (APOSOLO, Portugal, www.aposolo.pt )
  • Asociación Agraria Jóvenes Agricultores (ASAJA, Spain, www.asajanet.com  )
  • Association Française des Biotechnologies Végétales (AFBV, France, www.biotechnologies-vegetales.com )
  • Copa-Cogeca ( www.copa-cogeca.eu )
  • Fédération Nationale de la Production de Semence de Maïs et de Sorgho (FNPSMS, France)
  • FuturAgra (Italy, www.futuragra.it )
  • InnoPlanta (Germany, www.innoplanta.de)
  • Ligii Asociatiilor Producatorilor Agricoli din Romania (LAPAR, Romania)
  • National Farmers Union (England and Wales, www.nfuonline.com )
  • National Federation of Agricultural Cooperators and Producers (MOSZ, Hungary)
  • Em. Prof. Klaus Ammann, emeritus University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Prof. Bojin Bojinov, Dean, Faculty of Agriculture, Agricultural University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  • Prof. Selim Cetiner, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Dr. René Custers, Flanders Interuniversity Institute for biotechnology (VIB)
  • Dr. Lucia De Souza, Agroscope Reckenholz-Tikon Research Station ART, Zurich, Switzerland
  • Prof. Stefan Jansson, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Umeå University, Sweden
  • Mr. John Komen, Program for Biosafety Systems, International Food Policy Research Institute, Netherlands
  • Dr. Marcel Kuntz, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Institut de Recherches en Technologies et Sciences pour le Vivant (iRTSV), France
  • Prof. Piet van der Meer, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium
  • Dr. Piero A. Morandini, University of Milan, Dept. of Biology, Milan, Italy
  • Dr. Stefan Rauschen, RW TH Aachen University, Germany
  • Dr. Agnès RICROCH, AgroParisTech, Université Paris-Sud. Paris, France
  • Dra. Victoria Marfà Riera, Centre de Recerca en Agrigenòmica (CRAG), BARCELONA, Spain
  • Prof. Ioan Rosca, Universitatea de Stiinte Agricole si Medicina Veterinara, Bucharest, Romania
  • Dr Penny Sparrow, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
  • Prof. Charles Spillane, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland
  • Mgr. Zdeňka Svobodová, Biology Centre AS CR, University of South Bohemia, České Budějovice, Czech Republic
  • Em. Prof. Marc Van Montagu, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium – Chairman Public Research and Regulation Initiative PRRI (www.prri.net )