Errant GM wheat strain reopens debate about safety of biotech crops

Marco Contiero of Greenpeace.JPG

This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

SPECIAL REPORT / Groups campaigning to ban genetically modified foods in Europe have jumped on the recent discovery of unauthorised GM strain of wheat on an American farm as vindication of their longstanding campaign to banish biotech crops from the EU.

The European Commission will test US wheat imports for a strain of herbicide-resistant wheat developed by Monsanto, a global leader in agricultural biotechnology, but never approved by food regulators in the United States.

Any contaminated wheat would be banned, the Commission said.

Health and environmental campaign groups seized the discovery of the glyphosate-resistant strain to call for European-wide restrictions and to reverse policies that give national governments leeway over approving the sale and cultivation of GM crops.

The case could have implications well beyond the emotionally-fraught debate over biotech cultivation and food safety, with GM crops likely to be a sticking point in negotiations over a future of EU-US trade talks.

MEPs have weighed in with a resolution, adopted on 23 May, saying that the EU should not abandon the precautionary principle in its regulation of GM crops and animal cloning during the forthcoming trade talks.

“This is again another example of the need to have strict control systems, the need to have regulatory systems which are real, not like in the United States,” Marco Contiero, agricultural policy director for Greenpeace Europe, said of the case involving Monsanto’s MON71800 wheat.

Philip Miller, Monsanto’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said in a statement that the US-based company was co-operating with the US Department of Agriculture’s inspection unit, as well as regulators in the EU, Japan, Korea and Taiwan and has provided the European Commission with the information needed to test for the wheat.

Contiero welcomed Monsanto’s response and its recent announcement that it was not seeking approval of any new GM seeds in Europe for the time being, citing lack of demand and national bans on its MON810 maize.

Focus on conventional products

Monsanto will continue to focus on conventional products and provide biotech seeds to EU countries that allow them, said Brandon Mitchener, a company spokesman in Brussels. Its main rivals, including divisions of Germany’s BASF and Bayer and Syngenta in Switzerland, have also announced plans to focus their GM operations on markets other than Europe.

But Contiero said the moves by corporations do not reduce the risks nor the need for tighter regulation in the EU, though he said Greenpeace did not oppose GM research in “closed industrial environments.”

“The very simple fact that there are some different voluntary decisions taken by individual companies does not mean there is now no more the need to strengthen the current regulatory system,” Contiero told EURACTIV.

“Voluntary agreements are by nature very temporary. Monsanto itself said that as soon as they see more market acceptance, they would be very happy to sell their products in other countries,” he said.

Europe is far more wary of GM crops than the United States, which approved the first bio-engineered plant seed 19 years ago. Greenpeace and other European health and environmental groups argue that that scientific studies have yet to show conclusive evidence that there are no risks, to humans and the environment, from genetic modification, nor that there is any proof that biotech crops are more resistant to insects and drought.

Several EU states – Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg – ban the sale and cultivation of GM crops yet environmental groups contend that an EU-wide ban is needed to prevent mixing GM and conventional crops.

The case involving the errant wheat crops in the western state of Oregon is likely to energise such arguments.

In the United States, several farmers have filed class-action lawsuits in federal courts against Monsanto, saying the company failed to protect wheat from contamination.

A case of ‘déjà vu’

The British activist group GM Freeze says the Oregon case mirrors the 2006 contamination of US long grain rice by Bayer’s experimental LL601 rice strain.

“There is a real sense of déjà vu about this situation after the very costly and disruptive incident involving US GM rice in 2006,” said Pete Riley, a campaigner for the British GM freeze group.

“European and UK regulators should take careful note of what has happened in Oregon,” Riley said in a statement. “GM Freeze has repeatedly pointed out that coexistence of GM and non-GM crops without contamination is almost impossible because of the difficulties in containing GM pollen and seeds and the fact that human error can never be eliminated. So far biotech companies refuse to accept liability for the contamination they cause, so farmers suffering economic losses have to go to court to get help.”

Europe’s conventional and GM business accounted for nearly 13% of Monsanto’s global market in 2012, or €1.3 billion in sales. Most of its GM business is the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain, states that have been less reticent than other EU countries in embracing biotech farming.

An industry retreat from GM sales in Europe would go against trends in much of the rest of the world. Outside North America, Argentina, Brazil, India have been quick to embrace GM crops to address rising demand for food and biolfuel production. GM crops are now commercially grown in 22 nations, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) figures show, and GM seeds fall under an international treaty ratified by 161 countries – the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

The FAO has also recognised the potential of GM crops to improve food security in developing nations, saying in a recent report: “Biotechnology promises to boost productivity and thus raise rural incomes, much in the same way that the green revolution did in large parts of Asia during the 1960s to 1980s.”

Growing demand for GM crops

Developing countries in South Asia and Africa are major growth markets, with the number or hectares under cultivation rising seven-fold in a decade, from 10 million in 2000 to 70 million in 2010, UN figures show. In advanced countries, cultivation in the same period grew from 30 million hectares to more than 70 million.

Despite campaign group concerns, the industry has long defended GM crops as safe to humans and ecosytems, saying that have weathered countless safety reviews by government regulators and scientific panels, including those advising the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The World Health Organisation , reflecting similar findings by EFSA, has determined that existing GM foods “have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”

Still, the GM debate often gives way to different sides accusing one another of shoddy science. Last October, a French study found that rats fed on a diet containing Monsanto’s NK603 – a maize seed variety doused with Roundup weedkiller – or given water with Roundup at levels permitted in the United States, died earlier than those on a standard diet.

The study by University of Caen researchers, who released photos of deformed and bloated rats to illustrate their findings, was immediately called into doubt. The European Commission requested a review of the controversial study and nine days later, EFSA issued a preliminary report saying that the research was “of insufficient scientific quality.”

EFSA is itself often the target of criticism, with campaign groups and EU governments accusing the agency of sidelining the precautionary principle and being too cozy with the very industries it is supposed to be evaluating.

In February 2012, a report by two campaign groups, the Corporate Europe Observatory and the Earth Open Source, said the EU agency repeatedly relied on industry scientists and information in risk assessments that are used by EU institutions and national governments.

“Too often it’s not independent science that underlies EFSA decisions about our food safety, but industry data,” says the report ‘Conflicts on the menu’.


David Willetts, Britain’s science minister, told the Cheltenham Science Festival that the EU needs to ease restrictions on GM crops and other technologies to encourage innovation. “There are just too many 21st-century technologies that Europe is just being very slow to adopt,” Willetts said at the festival, The Times of London reported on Monday (10 June). “One productive way forward is to have this discussion as part of a wider need for Europe to remain innovative rather than a museum of 20th-century technology.”

A recent report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) showed that global adoption of GM crops increased by 6% to reach 170.3 million hectares. For the first time since 1996, the areas planted with genetically-modified (GM) crops in emerging and developing countries exceed those of industrialized countries.

The report, released in February, showed “that GM technology brings positive outcome for more than 17 million of farmers worldwide, by increasing productivity of food production, improving farmers’ income and securing food supply in a sustainable way”, said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, EuropaBio’s director for agricultural biotechnology.

The US Department of Agriculture announced it was investigating reports of an unauthorised GM what strain at a farm in the western state of Oregon. “We are taking this situation very seriously and have launched a formal investigation,” Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator of the department’s plant inspection service, said in a statement on 29 May. “Our first priority is to as quickly as possible determine the circumstances and extent of the situation and how it happened.  We are collaborating with state, industry, and trading partners on this situation and are committed to providing timely information about our findings.  USDA will put all necessary resources towards this investigation. ” 

Monsanto officials said they were cooperating with regulators in the EU, US and several other countries. In a statement, the American company said “there are no food, feed or environmental safety concerns” associated with the presence of the wheat.

“We are interested in getting to the bottom of this reported detection in a single field in Oregon,” Philip Miller, vice president of regulatory affairs at Monsanto, said in a statement on 3 June. “We’re prepared to provide any technical help that we can as this unusual and currently unexplained report raises important questions about the circumstance and source of the presence.” 

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 in the Council since then, with recent attempts to find a compromise agreement making little headway.

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.

On 2 January 2013, Poland's government announced restrictions on MON 810 and the Amflora potato, produced by German biotech firm BASF.

A year earlier, BASF's Plant Science announced that it was moving its plant biotech research activities from Germany to the United States and would cease all work to develop GM crops for the EU market.

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