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Commissioner rejects scientific advice on GM approval

The European Federation of Biotechnology, EFB, is very concerned about the draft decisions of the European Commission to reject two Bt maize product submissions based on discredited scientific arguments that have not been reviewed by its own independent scientific body, the European Food Safety Authority.

In an open letter to Commissioner Stavros Dimas the EFB President Marc van Montagu states that the draft decisions do not have a scientific basis and they seem to have been made without considering the consequences for Europe or the fact that similar varieties have been growing in Europe for the past 9 years with high adoption rates with no adverse environmental effects and in coexistence with conventional and organic farming.

“The draft decisions fail to draw on a substantial body of scientific data accumulated over several years and published in the last 12 months that highlight the economic, environmental and consumer benefits of Bt maize. A total of 63 peer-reviewed publications attest to the fact that Bt toxin does not accumulate in the soil and does not affect aerial and soil-based non-target organisms, on the contrary, there is ample evidence that non-target insects are severely threatened and reduced in their populations by spraying pesticides.

In considering the environmental safety of Bt maize, it is pertinent to note that Bacillus thuringiensis has been widely used as an insecticide spray for the control of European corn borer in Europe since 1938, when the first commercial Bt preparation (Sporeine) came onto the market in France. Given that Bt is a commonly used insecticide in organic agriculture and given the current trend in the expansion of organic farming in Europe, and the year-on-year northward spread of European corn borer, it is inevitable that Bt spraying will be on the increase.

The scientific data accumulated over recent years as part of biosafety assessment dossiers compiled on the various Bt crop varieties for commercial release will provide useful evidence for assessing the environmental impact of organic farming. As for the present time these environmental assessments of Bt sprays with their much higher concentrations have not been properly carried through, and also not published in peer reviewed journals – this in contrast to the many peer reviewed papers testifying no negative effects in soil and agricultural environment of GM Bt crops.

Agriculture is vital to the European economy, and Europe stands to gain much by the cultivation of new high performance crop varieties. Bt maize ensures productivity in years of heavy infestations and reduces the need for pesticides. In 2006, GM maize varieties including these two products were planted on 25.2 million hectares around the globe, and on 62,187 hectares in Europe. Spain has grown Bt maize for 9 years, and the benefits of Bt maize to Spanish farmers are well documented: average yield benefits have often been 10% and sometimes higher, which adds €15 million income to Spanish growers. Recent field trials in Italy showed that Bt maize performed

better than conventional varieties with yield increases of between 28 and 43 percent. These trials demonstrated that Bt maize can not only be more profitable for farmers, but is healthier because of lower contamination with hazardous fungal mycotoxins which represent a significant health threat to humans and animals when present in the food chain (Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006).

Farming systems are very diverse, from conventional to organic or genetically modified (GM). This ensures that agriculture provides an abundant and affordable supply of healthy food and feed, and offers consumers more choice. The EU’s explicit policy is that 'No form of Agriculture should be excluded from the Union', and the European Commission asks Member States to develop rules for the coexistence of different production systems, like Bt maize and non-GM maize, all long term scientific coexistence studies on maize demonstrate the feasibility of coexistence.

The draft Commission Decisions are totally unacceptable, not only for European farmers and consumers, but also set a terrible example for other parts of the world that presently draft guidelines for the cultivation of GM crops, since they look to Europe as an example. This is especially true in the developing world where there is an urgent need of new technologies to raise agricultural productivity. Other GM strains of maize are under development that will have enhanced nutritional quality or tolerance to drought, and must be given the chance to reach those who need them the most. It is a proven fact that in developing countries Bt maize is healthier due to its much lower content of mycotoxins, which have dramatic detrimental effect on human health (cancer, spina bifidis)”.

The open letter to Stavros Dimas concludes that the Commissioners proposals on not to approve the two Bt maize lines for cultivation based on discredited scientific arguments would not only undermine the EU’s own scientific advice and risk assessment procedure but would also represent a significant threat to the competitiveness of European farmers.

Jens Degett | alfa
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