GM crops: danger, menace or opportunity? These are just a few of the terms used by politicians, researchers and GM industrials when discussing GM crops in France. While some focus on the negative points (allergy, resistance to antibiotics) others underline the benefits (less pesticides and herbicides).
It’s very difficult to judge, so we won’t. Instead of trying to point out who’s right and who’s wrong, our report gives an inside view of the state of the French biotechnology industry. The results are grim; France is lagging behind. Biotechnology is commonly used to develop ways of improving plant growth, of which transgenesis via genetic modification is just one.
1983 was the year of publication of the first ever GM crop research - which was, incidentally, French. Twenty years on, the situation is less rosy: research has stagnated rather than improved. In 2007, the three GM programs developed by the ANR (National Research Agency), focused only on assessments of the side effects of GM crops. Only the risks were studied; none of the reports focused on the developing GM production. This endangers applied research. “There is not a single public researcher who is working for the agronomic development,” Guy Riba, Deputy General Director of INRA (National Agronomic Research Institute) tells France 24.
The same problem exists in the private sector. The predicament of French biotechnology is forcing industries to relocate their research plants abroad. We visited biotech company Limagrain in Clermont-Ferrant, central France. Despite being the world’s fourth largest seed producer, the company is under so much pressure from the anti-GM lobby that it is considering relocating its plant somewhere other than France. Private companies' departure from France will jeopardize cooperation between public and private sectors as public investment is allocated to companies abroad, with no wealth being created at home.
The consequences are also calculated in terms of human resources, and the brain drain is striking. The sector suffers from a bad image. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of students taking biology degrees decreased by 15%. French agriculture will become less competitive on the international stage, putting its entire economic and political sovereignty under threat.
Researchers have expressed their concern over the a lack of innovation that could ultimately weaken France in its international role as a GM expert. It may not be entirely desirable to see production and expertise of GM crops under exclusive control of Anglo-Saxon companies. If no steps are taken towards an independent biotechnology industry in France, these global companies will end up imposing their rule on European agriculture.
Without research, without innovation, a large part of the French economy is in jeopardy. “To say ‘no’ today means saying ‘no’ until 2025,” comments Guy Riba. Our actions have a direct impact on the mid and long term; tomorrow, we may see French or even European agriculture losing its share of the global market.