TCS Daily

Dead Moratorium

By Waldemar Ingdahl - May 19, 2004 12:00 AM

The moratorium on authorizing new genetically modified (GM) products for the EU market is about to end as the European Commission announced its approval of the GM maize product known as Bt-11. The Bt-11 corn, produced by the Swiss biotech corporation Syngenta, has been genetically modified to produce its own insecticide.

The EU's agriculture council failed on April 26 to either reject or adopt the Commission's proposal to authorize the maize. Nevertheless, the Commission decided this week to adopt it single-handedly. This means imports can start immediately.

This is good news for all friends of progress in Europe -- even if the Greens are worked into a frenzy, issuing press releases with headlines screaming of impending doom. The moratorium has been in effect since 1998 (a small eternity when it comes to discussing biotechnology with its rapid pace), held back by both the greens and the special interests but also a widespread anxiety among European consumers.

The vote in the Council of Ministers was the last opportunity for member states to uphold the de facto moratorium on authorizing new GM products. Member states have so far rejected all attempts to authorize new products, stating the lack of strict EU rules on labeling GM food. Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne have long advocated a lifting of the moratorium, despite the fierce resistance from Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. She had so far been able to count on the support of the member states' own ministers for the environment, but on April 18 the EU's new labeling laws came into force, making the argument of the lack on strict EU rules on labeling obsolete.

The Commission's decision to authorize GMO concerns only the consumption of the corn and not its cultivation within the EU. There is also much concern that consumer attitudes in Europe towards GMO are still unfavorable. The reversing of the moratorium should have been accompanied by much more discussion with the public in order to explain why it is of great importance for consumers to allow new GM products. This is because the new GM products will be from the next generation of biotechnology.

The first generation of GM plants encountered resistance since it did not offer any immediately apparent benefits to the consumer. The increased tolerance towards biotic and abiotic stress has mainly been beneficial to farmers in producing virus-resistant papaya, herbicide-resistant crops, drought-resistant cotton, and salt-resistant tomato plants that store excess salt in their leaves.

The second generation is about getting bigger - and, more important -- smarter harvests. This is vital to poor countries trying to feed their growing populations on less arable land. But second generation GM plants are not only a part of the solution to world hunger, they also offer the benefits of functional food. Biofortification, such as with vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice, could solve many problems of malnutrition.

The third generation will probably be the real GM revolution, eclipsing the effects of the previous generations. Plant production of non-food applications gives value to farmers and consumers immediately. Plant-derived renewables like bioplastics are degradable and cheap. Plant production of edible vaccines, antibodies and blood proteins could solve medical problems. Got a cold? Don't take pills, have a banana! It also enables the consumer to know exactly what is in the product and what effects it will have on her.

It is thus possible to give new functions and contents to plants. If properly presented, and discussed, the next generations of GMO might well swing the European consumer's view in favor of GMO.

Waldemar Ingdahl recently wrote for TCS about Patents and Life.


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