To the editor:

Your editorial 'Orphans at the window' (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 1055, 2004) presents an interesting view on potential niche markets for GM crops in Europe. Even so, as directors of companies working directly in the field, we have heard so many opinions and recommendations from various people, that the niche market proposal seems like just another idea—not new by the way—and a bit irresponsible because it is proposed as an alternative to the conventional market of raw agricultural production, not as a complement.

We accept the blame for our short-minded market approach, for having completely failed to communicate with the consumers, etc. Agriculture is an economic activity, however, not just a pastime (see Table 1). Producing raw agricultural materials is a risky business. Farmers have to ensure that what is in the ground in the autumn will blossom and produce for harvest in the spring and summer, despite erratic climatic conditions, pests and diseases. We do not accept the argument that the advantages of the GM technology to the producers are negligible. For farmers, the reduction in exposure to toxic chemicals, the smaller load on the environment and the lower production costs are a big plus.

Table 1 Crop and livestock exports in 2002

We know that the average European consumer does not pay much attention to the farmer as a producer. Often, for those who wander our beautiful rural landscapes during vacation time, the perception is that farmers are gardeners, not producers. This view of agricultural activities is more common in the United Kingdom than in France because France has a long tradition of an active rural economy (it is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world and the largest agricultural producer in the European Union). In fact, there are millions of Europeans whose livelihood comes directly or indirectly from the land. Ceding the seed and produce markets to non-European producers is not in their best interest. This argument applies to any region around the world; each is the best judge of its own agricultural needs and each requires access to the tools that permit the best response to those needs.

Yes, there is no problem in matching niche markets with GM products, especially, as you point out, once European legal regulations have been fully implemented. However, niche markets should be seen as a complement to core GM crop production, not a substitute for it.