The European Commission’s blessing to grow genetically-modified potatoes has drawn bitter criticism from environmental groups and some member states. But others say it is a first step towards protecting the competitiveness of Europe’s farms.
The European Commission cleared the way for cultivation of genetically-modified potatoes in the EU on Tuesday, saying its decision was based on "a considerable volume of sound science". But environmental groups and some EU members are unimpressed.
The Amflora potatoes, produced by the German chemical powerhouse BASF, are not intended for human consumption. The genetically modified spuds are instead destined for industrial use, including paper production and animal feed.
Shortly after the approval announcement, Austria said it was taking immediate measures to ban the cultivation of GM potatoes, and Italy’s agriculture chief said he was prepared to “defend and safeguard traditional agriculture and citizens’ health”.
Genetically modified agricultural products have been a matter of passionate debate in Europe. The Amflora potato, the first modified product to be approved by the 27-member union in 12 years, has re-ignited the battle.
Seed companies have welcomed the decision, saying it should help correct what they describe as Europe’s hypocritical stance on GM products. "We already import hundreds of tons of GM products every year that are found in various foods. Why can we not grow them here?” asks Garlich von Essen, secretary general of European Seeds, the seed industry’s main lobbying group in Europe.
Opponents of GM agriculture say they fear contamination of traditional food crops by laboratory-engineered varieties, arguing that it is impossible to predict the effects the new strains will have on existing ones.
“The debate began on a confrontational tone, and the conflict has persisted because of a lack of transparency,” says Jean-Marc Petat, BASF's environment director. “The public does not have all the information to fully understand the benefits or drawbacks of GM products.”
European directive, or lack thereof
Even as it blessed BASF with its approval, the commission stressed that each member state would need to decide whether or not to plant the new potato.
Following the contentious announcement, France’s Agriculture Ministry said the country's high commission for biotechnologies would have to decide on Amflora’s future. But French vegetable producers have largely sided with a public that remains staunchly sceptical of GM foods.
“It’s a source of fear for people today, and it’s clear that consumers are not ready for GM products,” says Jacques Rouchausse, secretary general of France's main union of vegetable growers. “We have to wait for the findings of scientific research, but today our position is clear, no GM.”
Environmental groups have warned that the commission’s GM approval sets a dangerous political precedent. “We might be inclined to think that letting each country decide is a good thing, but [the commission] could approve all GM requests and then deflect any backlash towards member states,” says Sarah Pecas, GM campaign coordinator for Greenpeace.
But for BASF's Petat, a future European directive on GM must look beyond regional issues of national sovereignty, and consider the prospects of European farms in international markets. “Agribusiness contributes more to French GDP than auto manufacturing, so it’s important for French agriculture to benefit from the latest innovations,” he says.