Studies linking genetically modified crops with adverse effects on the environment or animal health are based on “contested science”, according to a recent report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which received backing from Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientific advisor.
The report from EASAC, published in June, warns of the “grave scientific, economic and social consequences of current European Union policy towards GM crops”, saying European countries should “rethink” their widespread rejection of the technology.
The study came as a blow to environmentalists opposing GMOs as it received backing from the national science academies of all EU member states, plus Norway and Switzerland.
It has now received support from the EU’s chief scientific advisor, Anne Glover, who described it as “an authoritative, joint statement of the national science academies in the EU member states.”
“The conclusions of the report are based on the best possible evidence and I endorse its conclusions whole-heartedly,” Glover told EurActiv in an interview.
In Europe, countries that do not embrace GMOs “will face particular problems with the use of fertilisers, the availability of water and the degradation of soils,” the report warns, noting that improvements in farm yields for major crops have remained “limited or non-existent” in the past decade.
“Producing more food sustainably requires crops that make better use of limited resources including land, water and fertiliser,” which can be achieved through the exploitation of plant genetic resources, the report notes.
“But so long as EU policies on farming and the environment are out of alignment with the need to innovate, ambitions to improve agriculture will be thwarted,” it warns.
More worrying for green campaigners, the report provides a resounding endorsement of scientific studies which concluded that GMOs were safe for the environment and human consumption.
“The scientific literature shows no compelling evidence to associate such crops, now cultivated worldwide for more than 15 years, with risks to the environment or with safety hazards for food,” the EASAC report states.
“Claims of adverse impacts have often been based on contested science,” it adds, saying that “some critics have falsely attributed the effects of a specific trait to the means used to introduce it to the plant”.
For example, the EASAC report says cultivating a GM crop with increased herbicide resistance may prove detrimental to the environment if the farmer over-uses that herbicide. “But the same would be true of herbicide resistance introduced by conventional breeding,” the report says.
“Any new tool or technology can have unintended and unwanted effects if used unwisely.”
Glover said she fully endorsed the EASAC statement. “There is no evidence that GM technologies are any riskier than conventional breeding technologies and this has been confirmed by thousands of research projects,” she told EurActiv.
“In my view consumers can believe in the overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating that GM technology is not any riskier than conventional plant breeding technology. The EASAC Report is a major contribution to this debate as it reflects the view of Europe's most eminent scientists.”
Séralini study ‘hopelessly flawed’
Still, recent scientific research has drawn attention to the long-term effects that GMOs might have on animal or human health.
A study by researchers at the University of Caen found that rats fed on Monsanto's NK603 GM maize or exposed to the company's top-selling Roundup weed killer were at higher risk of suffering tumours, multiple organ damage and premature death.
The research, led by biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini, reignited controversy over GM food in France, where the biotechnology is unpopular and growing of GM crops is banned.
The Caen researchers argued that their lifetime testing of rats were more pertinent than the 90-day feeding trials that form the basis of GM crop approvals, since three months is only the equivalent of early adulthood in rats.
But Glover dismissed the Séralini study for being “hopelessly flawed”, saying that dozens of independent reviews had challenged its conclusions.
“It's simply bad science and the reputation of the journal that published it has suffered as a result,” she said, calling on the group of researchers to disclose their sources of funding for the sake of transparency.
EASAC study ‘90% non-industry funded’
EASAC also sought to placate green critics who claim that the majority of scientific studies on GMO safety are biased because they are carried out by researchers who are paid for by industrial lobby groups.
“We estimate that around 90% of the literature on which the conclusions of the report are based is on non-industry funded, peer-reviewed research,” said Sofie Vanthournout, head of the Brussels office of EASAC.
“In this specific case, extra care was taken in order to ensure that none of the experts had strong ties with industry, although a certain level of industry connections cannot be completely excluded,” she told EurActiv, saying the report included several peer-review rounds by external experts and scientific academies.
Yet, even the most convincing science seems powerless when the GMO debate enters the political realm. Public opinion surveys conducted by Eurobarometer and other polling agencies show a high level of distrust in GM crops, with a majority of consumers rejecting the technology.
The EASAC report acknowledged this, saying that “politicians – mindful of their electorates – may chose to ignore” scientific advice and invoke safeguard clauses to prohibit GMO cultivation.
But it also says public attitudes “are not immutable”. For instance, part of the suspicion surrounding GMOs is linked to the issue of intellectual property rights, with many people and farmers firmly rejecting the notion that living organisms can ever be patented.
However, EASDAC believes this is “a diminishing issue” because more intellectual property is now shared or licenced free for public use. “Although the first generation of GM products were the intellectual property of multi-nationals, more recent GM crop developments in Africa and elsewhere have often been publicly funded with support from international foundations and agencies,” it notes.
New plant breeding technologies
The EASAC report also draws attention to emerging grey areas in regulation. It says some crops obtained by new plant breeding techniques may be considered GMOs – and therefore banned for cultivation – even though they contain no foreign species in their genes.
“So one immediate consideration for EU regulators is to confirm that when plants do not contain foreign DNA, they do not fall within the scope of GMO legislation,” EASAC said. In the future, a more radical reform of GMO regulation should focus on a risk-benefit analysis rather than risk alone, it says.
Glover agreed, saying Europe should not miss the opportunities offered by emerging plant breeding technologies.
“We shouldn't forget that there are also other promising novel plant breeding technologies, post-GM, and we shouldn't make the mistake of regulating them to death as we have done with GM.”
Adrian Bebb, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, pointed to research from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand showing that GM use in North America had limited yields and increased pesticide use compared to non-GM farming in Western Europe.
"Research shows that Europe is reducing pesticide use and increasing yields – without GM crops. This contrasts starkly with GM-hungry countries like the US and Canada, who find themselves stuck on a pesticides treadmill. It is a great shame that the EASAC fails to recognise this and instead comes out with rather out-dated arguments." “Instead of wasting time and money promoting a failed GMO technology that nobody wants, the scientific establishment should back practical, sustainable solutions. Europe needs more small-scale farming systems that protect biodiversity, increase soil fertility, provide good food and tackle climate change."
The European Commission proposed allowing national cultivation bans for GMOs in July 2010, in a bid to break a deadlock in EU GM crop approvals which has seen few varieties approved for cultivation in more than 12 years.
The proposal, however, has been subject to bitter divisions between EU member states and the proposal remains blocked.
In the EU only two GM crops are approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, and potatoes with modified starch for industrial use.
Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.
To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.
European Academies Science Adivsory Council (EASAC)
- Press release: EASAC warns EU policy on GM crops threatens the future of our agriculture (25 June 2013)
- Policy report: Planting the future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture (June 2013) Full report | Short version | Lay (non-technical) version
- International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability: Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest (14 June 2013)