The European Commission has recently asked five member states to lift their bans on genetically modified (GM) crops and foods.
Nevertheless, the future of agricultural biotechnology in Europe looks bleak. Supermarkets do not stock GM food. Regulatory obstacles make commercial production of GM crops uneconomical, except in Spain. In the US, by contrast, three-quarters of food in supermarkets contains ingredients from GM plants and Americans have been eating food with a GM content for more than seven years without harm and even, significantly, without a single lawsuit alleging harm.
More than 80 per cent of the soya bean crop grown in America, 70 per cent of cotton and 38 per cent of maize is now genetically modified. But in an important book Henry Miller and Gregory Conko show that in the US, too, biotechnology is threatened*. An unholy alliance of big companies and green pressure groups has created a burden of over-regulation that stifles innovation and hamstrings research.
The relevant regulatory bodies in the US are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), concerned with food safety, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), for farming, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates field trials and the use of pesticides. Each has a different approach.
The FDA sensibly considers the nature of a new product, not the process by which the product is made, in granting licences. Supported by the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion in the developed and developing world, it accepts that GM food is as safe to eat as conventionally produced food. Indeed, since GM crops have been more carefully tested, they are probably safer. This view is strongly contested by green activists, in the US as in Britain, in spite of the evidence.
The USDA and EPA act differently because, surprisingly, leading biotech companies, supported by the industry's main trade organisation, lobbied the regulators to create a framework specific to GM products. They did so partly, according to Miller and Conko, to reassure the public that its concerns about safety were taken seriously, partly to keep out smaller competitors. The USDA and EPA duly obliged. The first defines GM plants as posing an inherent danger and regulates them as if they are pests. The second regulates GM pest-resistant plants as chemical pesticides, while exempting resistant plants bred by conventional means.
This has proved counter-productive. It has increased public concern because special regulation implies that GM crops present special risks. Green activists have been vindicated: their claim that GM organisms are dangerous is officially endorsed.
Furthermore, costs have soared. Field trials with GM crops are now 10 to 20 times more expensive than experiments with similar conventional crops. Over the past 20 years the time to develop a significant GM crop variety has increased from six to 12 years and the cost has risen from $50m to $300m. Competition has been suppressed and so has innovation because neither small start-up companies nor academic institutions, two big sources of innovation, have the resources to comply with the regulatory burdens. For example, an allergen-free GM wheat variety developed at the University of California, Berkeley, will not be tested in the field because the cost of compliance is prohibitive. Products that would benefit the poor and hungry have been hit particularly hard because only field trials of high-volume products for rich markets can be justified commercially.
In Europe, regulatory burdens are even greater and their effect is felt worldwide. Regulations that impose rules for mandatory labelling and traceability are a case in point. They go far beyond any reasonable requirements to provide consumers with choice. The traceability rules alone may finally exclude all GM crops from EU markets because, in practice, they will require exporters to maintain separate grain elevators, freight wagons, barges and drying and processing facilities. Costs will double.
GM plants already help the developing world. More than 5m small farmers in China, India and South Africa now grow GM cotton and the reduced need to use pesticides has greatly increased their income and improved their health. Yet excessive regulation is holding back one of the most promising technologies of modern times.
* The Frankenfood Myth - How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution(Praeger)
Lord Taverne is chair of Sense About Science, which backs an evidence-based approach to science, and author of the forthcoming The March of Unreason
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