In a controversial move, the European Commission yesterday (2 March) gave the green light for the first genetically-modified potato to be cultivated in the European Union.
The EU executive authorised the cultivation in the EU of Amflora, a genetically-modified potato developed by German chemical company BASF,
The move marked the bloc's first GM cultivation approval in 12 years.
BASF plans to begin cultivating Amflora this year on 250 hectares in the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany. The firm said it expected peak license fees of about 20-30 million euros ($27-40.6 million) per annum.
"Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies," said Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli.
After an extensive and thorough review of five pending GM files, it had become clear that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessment, as those concerning safety had been fully addressed, the commissioner added.
The decision was based on a series of favourable safety assessments carried out over the years by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The EU executive also launched a reflection group on how to combine a European authorisation system with giving member states the freedom to decide on GMO cultivation.
Yesterday's decision includes strict cultivation conditions to prevent GM potatoes from remaining in the fields after harvest and to ensure that Amflora's seeds are not inadvertently disseminated into the wider environment, the Commission explained, in a bid to allay cross-contamination fears.
The EU executive also approved three genetically-modified maize types made by US biotech firm Monsanto for food and feed uses and import and processing in the European Union.
The EU executive said it plans to announce proposals by summer that would, if approved, allow governments to decide whether genetically modified crops can be grown within their borders.
German Green MEP Martin Häusling, a member of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, commented: "I am shocked that Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner John Dalli has only needed weeks in his new position to show such flagrant support for industry interests ahead of his own portfolio. His decision to authorise the Amflora potato variety flies in the face of the 70% of consumers who are against GM food, as well as the anti-GM position of the European Parliament."
"There are serious concerns about an Amflora gene that is resistant to antibiotics, including one recognised by the World Health Organisation and others essential to medicine, for example in the treatment of tuberculosis. Serious doubts remain on possible consequences for human health and the environment. Since certain non-GM varieties have already proved to have the same characteristics designed in Amflora, I can only conclude that its authorisation is at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous," he said.
The chairman of the European People's Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul MEP, described the decision as "a positive step which was long overdue".
"The Commission took a decision based on scientific advice and sets an important signal for the innovation and use of new technologies in European agriculture. This will strengthen the competitiveness of European agriculture as well as the position of Europe as a centre of knowledge and innovation," he said.
It is important, however, to apply the principle of subsidiarity, Daul underlined.
"European farmers need the same access to modern technologies as farmers in other regions of the world," he continued.
"Biotechnology must be the key technology for a competitive and sustainable agricultural sector in Europe, creating jobs in agriculture as well as in research and development. Europe has to retain its leading role in biotechnology," Daul concluded.
The ground-breaking decision was not welcomed by environmental groups, who said it ignored risks posed by the crop to human and animal health, as well as to the environment.
"It is shocking that one of the Commission's first official acts is to authorise a GM crop that puts the environment and public health at risk," Greenpeace EU's agriculture policy director Marco Contiero said in a statement.
"If this new potato is widely grown in the European Union, organic and conventional farmers and food processors will have to face even higher costs keeping food production chains free from GMOs", warned Bavo van den Idsert, vice-president of IFOAM, which represents organic farmers in Europe.
Approval of genetically-modified crops in the European Union has long been a subject of controversy, dividing EU member states as many are openly hostile to so-called 'Frankenstein foods'.
Heike Moldenhauer, GMO spokesperson for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: "This is a bad day for European citizens and the environment. The new commissioner, whose job is to protect consumers, has in one of his first decisions ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world's biggest chemical company. This decision puts profit before people or the environment and will do little to increase public confidence in the Brussels bureaucracy."
"There are clear health concerns surrounding this GM potato. The antibiotics affected by Amflora are vital tools against illness and despite growing resistance to these life saving drugs, industry has added them to potatoes with no guarantees that they will not get into the food chain. This is nothing less then a crass decision that puts the public at risk," Moldenhauer added.
"We feel encouraged by this decisive regulatory approach," said Willy De Greef, EuropaBio's secretary- general. "It offers the necessary predictability to industry and also to the general public regarding the development of a technology that has much to offer to Europeans as a whole."
"Amongst the decisions announced today was the first approval of a GM crop for cultivation in Europe since 1998. There are a further 17 products in the approval process for cultivation and 44 products awaiting authorisation for food and feed as well as for import and processing in the EU," explained De Greef.
"However, today's approvals represent a step in the right direction and a return to science-based decision-making. This is essential if European farmers are to be given the freedom to choose whether or not to cultivate innovative GM crops, and if consumers are to be given the possibility to choose safe and beneficial GM products," he concluded.