GMOs: 'We shouldn't mix the precautionary principle and public perception'

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Amid persistent hostile European public opinion towards GM food, the executive director of green biotechnology at EuropaBio, Nathalie Moll, argues that GMOs should be authorised based on science and not public perception, and that member states need to avoid mixing authorisation of a product and people's right to choose whether or not to buy it.

Nathalie Moll is executive director of green technology at EuropaBio.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Recent surveys show that majority of European public opinion still rejects GM food. Why do you insist on green biotech?

I believe that we have a freedom of choice and if in all these studies there is a percentage against, there is always a percentage for as well. I think it would be fair to give those who want it access to choice and for those who don't want it not to buy it.

I don't believe that the authorisation process should decide based on public perception whether or not to put something on the market, they should decide based on science. Public perception decides whether they want to buy it or not based on choice.

Before giving the people the freedom of choice with regard GMOs, public authorities are responsible for safeguarding the environment and biodiversity. What is your stance on the current risk assessment procedures? Are they reliable and GMOs safe?

All risk assessment procedures are based on the OECD 1986 safety assessment guidelines. So we all have the same criteria all around the world and our risk assessment has been recognised as being the most stringent in the world – even by Greenpeace. So once you've gone through that risk assessment you should feel pretty much secure and be sure that everything has been taken into consideration.

There is a one European Commission study on the risk assessment and safety of GMOs. It is a study over 15 years in 400 independent research institutes, funded by the Commission's DG Research, that found that GM crops approved in Europe are either as safe as, if not safer, than their conventional counterparts. That statement was made by Commissioner Philippe Busquin at the time he presented the study.

How can GM crops be potentially safer than their conventional counterparts?

Because they've been tested for cancer, for mutagenetisme. GM crops are the only plants, the only foods that have been tested regarding their safety. So, for example, if you try to make a strawberry go through the approval process of GMOs, it would not be approved, because they are allergenic to some people - the same for a kiwi or a potato. 

So GMOs are tested for cancer, for mutagenecity (if what you eat is going to mutate your genes), allergenecity, toxicity to you, the environment and to non-targeted organisms such as butterflies and ladybirds etc. Whereas the food you buy at the supermarket does not have these tests. So at least for the GM products, you can know - for the others, you can't have any idea. 

Having said all this, how do you react to recent developments in France and also to EU Environment Commissioner Dimas's stance with regard to trying to ensure that rules for the authorisation and use of GM crops respond to the concerns of citizens and protect biodiversity?

I think the situation in France is not clear yet because President Sarkozy suggested the suspension that had to be in line with EU law and Commissioner Dimas clearly told him that he was not in line with European law unless he had scientific evidence, which Sarkozy said he did not have. So, I would say that there is no suspension at the moment in France until he can prove he has some scientific evidence. I think he wants to create a body to assess that first and it is going to take few months I imagine. So the French situation is something that was said, but since then has been ruled out by the European Commission.

Dimas's alleged rejection of two cultivation dossiers comes two and half years after these dossiers received a positive EFSA opinion, which is maybe two years out of time. DG Environment has three months as of the EFSA opinion to move that on to the regulatory committee, so two and half years seems a long time. And we don't know what he is basing his proposed, alleged rejection on because I have not seen any text. So until we read what he is basing his rejection on, we can't really say anything. Since he told Sarkozy that he needs scientific evidence, we assume that he has some, but I don't know.

The majority of people are reluctant and some say that science is still uncertain. How sustainable and economically profitable do you think green biotech is on a long run?

I think the market should decide. I think it is shown to be sustainable because it's been going on for ten years around the world and there is an increase. In Europe there seems to be confusion between authorisation and right to choose. Everybody seems to think that once you authorise these products, you are going to have to buy them, but you can still choose if you want to. And the best way to put industry out of the business is to let the people choose and show that they don't want it.

You also said that GMOs hold health benefits. Could you explain them?

When plants are damaged by insects or by other damage, they are more prone to receive fungi or mushrooms to grow on where the plants have been damaged. And some fungi or mushrooms produce toxins themselves and some of these toxins have been recognised as causing cancer, mycotoxins. So if you have a plant that has been damaged it is easier for it to be attacked by fungi and have a high level of mycotoxins. You actually have legal residue levels for mycotoxins in maze but also in other products such as milk. 

In Italy, they had to recently destroy 25% of the milk produced because it contained too much mycotoxins and was considered as dangerous. And that is because the cows had been eating maize that had a high level of mycotoxins in it. Biotech crops do not allow any damage to the product so you don't have any risk of being damage and fungi growing on it. This is obviously an additional health benefit. Mycotoxins exist everywhere except in GMOs. 

Statistics show an increase of 77% in one year in hectares used for GM maize cultivation in the EU. What's the prospect for the coming years? 

The GM maize currently authorised in Europe is good for the farmer if he has the European corn borer infestation, otherwise it is useless because it does not increase one's seed production but just gives an increased protection against this one pest. There's no point in using it on the regions where there is no corn borer. Only 25% of the EU maize has this problem and of that 25%, only one percent is biotech. 

It would be great if all those farmers (25%) who have this problem had access to it. So, this particular crop could go to 25%. But there are lots of other products that are blocked in the approval process in Europe that do other things that would be useful.

In the world there are 209 crops, and here in Europe we only have this one. So the prospects for growth in Europe I'd see is that the other products get approved and the farmers have a choice.

The farmers expressed serious frustration regarding the role of media,and  in particular television, accusing it of misinformation on GMOs. How do you perceive the role of the media?

It is a very difficult dossier to explain. It is very technical and there is a long history of uncomfortableness and scaremongering by pressure groups so I think there is a lot of "terrain" to recover, you have to make up a lot of things. It would be great if the media could help in giving the facts but everybody can't be an expert on everything and I think it is understandable that it is very difficult.

What do you expect from the EU member states? 

I hope that member states don't give up cultivation in Europe, because there are already eight countries cultivating and some of them have done fpr ten years. So it would be really unfair to farmers in Europe if we just become importers of GM and don't allow them to competitively produce GM – because we are importing massively and our farmers should be allowed to produce the same thing that they have to import. It is just not fair otherwise. It is pretending that we don't have a European farming industry – and we do. 

I think it is important to make the distinction between public perception and the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is good and it should be used and it is used in Europe but it should not be mixed up with public perception. Public perception is another step. Once things have been approved, the public can choose whether they want it or they don't want it. Before the governments just need to assess the safety of something, not whether the public wants it. 

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