Not everyone is happy in Europe today. Evil Genetically Modified (GM) crops are on the march. After 12 years of deliberations, the EC approved the cultivation of BASF's Amflora potato for industrial uses or animal feed. Amflora is only the second GM crop approved for cultivation in Europe. Before getting into this too far, I want to make clear that such decisions should be based on science, and if the science says there are safety or health concerns then we should be cautious. But the science, all the science I am aware of, says GM crops are safe, at least from a health perspective. Non-peer reviewed yelping doesn't count. (Leakage of transgenes is another matter, which I get to below, lest the reader think I am wholly uncritical of GM crops.)
According to the NYT, the EC's Health Commissioner John Dalli described the decision this way:
Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies. After an extensive and thorough review ... it became clear to me that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessment. ...All scientific issues, particularly those concerning safety, had been fully addressed. Any delay would have simply been unjustified.
Digging into this a bit, I found on the European Commission's site quite a long list of GM crops that are approved for various uses in Europe. Not cultivation, mind you, but use. Six member states presently "prohibit the use and/or sale of the GM product on its territory".
The primary complaint by critics appears to be that Amflora contains antibiotic resistance genes, which is not the change that makes them useful in the field, but rather an old technology used to produce the plants in the first place. That this very old technology is now being deployed in the field is the result of the slow approval process in Europe. No new GM crop in the US would contain antibiotic resistance genes. Why is this important? Because those genes may leak out of the crop into other organisms.
According to the NYT, this risk was evaluated as being very low for the Amflora potato. Fine. But it is a real risk in general, one that has been observed in other GM crops. Here is the relevant passage from of my book, in the context of using GM crops as industrial feedstocks (p165 -- refs are at bottom of this post):
Leakage of genes from GM crops into their unmodiﬁed cousins is potentially a threat if herbicide-resistance genes are transferred into weeds. Gene ﬂow into close relatives has been observed in tests plot of Kentucky bluegrass and creeping bentgrass, which provided "the ﬁrst evidence for escape of transgenes into wild plant populations within the USA." A similar result has now been demonstrated for a stable and persistent transfer of an herbicide-resistance gene from the widely cultivated Brassica napus, commonly known as rape or rapeseed, to its wild relative Brassica rapa. Within the conﬁnes of a laboratory, herbicide-resistance genes can be transferred with relative ease via pollen exchange between common weed species. These demonstrations may give pause to both policy makers and commercial interests. Any gene transfer in open cultivation that results in unintentional propagation of a new herbicide-resistant weed strain has the potential to cause substantial economic and physical damage.
The resulting potential threat to agricultural systems raises signiﬁcant questions about the wisdom of relying on genetically modiﬁed crops for feedstock production.
If gene leakage can be minimized, then GM crops hold sufficient promise that they should be used. The EC appears to believe that this is the case for Amflora potatoes. Critics in Europe aren't satisfied. But here is the truly nutty bit about criticism from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth -- it is through their efforts that technological progress in Europe is so damn slow. Why would any company want to go through the pain and expense of trying to get new technology (i.e., a GM crop that doesn't contain antibiotic resistance genes) into Europe when the only test case took 12 years to make it into the field?
At any rate, the Amflora decision may indicate the mood has changed at the EC level. Not that the floodgates are likely to open, but perhaps GM crops will now be seen in a different light in Europe.
Refs from Biology is Technology excerpt:
47. P. G. Johnson et al., Pollen-mediated gene ﬂow from Kentucky bluegrass under cultivated ﬁeld conditions,Crop Science 46, no. 5(2006): 1990; L. S. Watrud et al., From the cover: Evidence for landscape-level, pollen-mediated gene ﬂow from genetically modiﬁed creeping bentgrass with CP4EPSPS as a marker, PNAS 101, no. 40(2004): 14533; J. R. Reichman et al., Establishment of transgenic herbicide-resistant creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera L.) in nonagronomic habitats, Molecular Ecology 15, no. 13(2006): 4243.
48. S. I. Warwick et al., Do escaped transgenes persist in nature? The case of an herbicide resistance transgene in a weedy Brassica rapa population, Molecular Ecology 17, no. 5(2007): 1387-1395.
49. I. A. Zelaya, M. D. K. Owen, and M. J. VanGessel, Transfer of glyphosate resistance: Evidence of hybridization in Conyza (Asteraceae), American Journal of Botany 94, no. 4(2007): 660.