Published online 9 March 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.112

News: Briefing

A new dawn for transgenic crops in Europe?

Approval of the Amflora potato could signal a fresh approach to genetically modified organisms.

The European Commission last week approved Amflora — a genetically modified (GM) potato developed by German chemical company BASF. The potato — engineered to produce a form of starch that is better for some industrial purposes in, for example, paper manufacturing, adhesives and textiles — is the first GM crop to be approved for cultivation in the European Union (EU) for 12 years. Monsanto's MON 810 maize (corn), which is engineered to be resistant to the European corn-borer caterpillar, was licensed in 1998.

The sluggish pace of approval for GM crops means that whereas 134 million hectares of GM crops were planted worldwide last year, less than 100,000 hectares of those were in the agricultural powerhouse that is the EU. Nature looks at the reasons why so few GM crops have been approved in Europe, and if that is now set to change.

What's responsible for the EU blockage of GM crops?

The EU-wide system for approving genetically modified organisms (GMOs) isn't working. In principle, when the EU approves a GM crop for cultivation, companies and farmers across all member states have the right to plant it. But getting crops approved requires a 'qualified majority' of the 27 member states that make up the European Council in favour — at least 255 from a total of 345 votes — so opposition by a few countries can block the introduction of a crop across the entire bloc. If the council fails to approve it, as was the case with Amflora, the decision rests with the European Commission.

Does the approval of Amflora signal a change?

Yes and no. Austria and Italy have already said that they will defy the commission and refuse to allow the crop to be grown, and other countries are likely to follow. In theory, the commission can force such countries to comply, but that has become a political non-starter. Last year, the commission attempted to force France, Greece, Austria and Hungary to lift bans on growing MON 810 maize, but couldn't muster the majority vote of member states needed.

Amflora potatoesAmflora potatoes have been approved for cultivation in the European Union.BASF

At the moment, six countries — Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg — have GMO bans in place through the use of 'safeguard clauses'. Such clauses allow member states to restrict or prohibit specific GMOs that are already approved by the EU if they claim to have some evidence that the crops might pose a risk to human health or the environment. Often, however, member states are simply responding to public pressure at home.

But the commission's approval of Amflora may signal that it is willing to use its executive authority to push through authorizations of GMOs that haven't been able to gain approval through the usual voting procedure. The commission has indicated that it is likely to take decisions soon on the stalled renewal of MON 810's licence, and on the approval of three other maize strains — two insect-resistant varieties made by Syngenta and Pioneer, and a Monsanto strain that is resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides such as 'Roundup'.

And what about states that refuse to comply?

After the commission's bruising defeat in trying to lift the bans of individual nations, it now looks set to take a pragmatic approach that might formally allow countries to opt out of growing GM crops. Few details of the proposals, which are due to be announced this summer, are available yet. But some reports suggest that the commission could continue to approve GMOs across the EU on the basis of scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), its independent risk-assessment body in Parma, Italy — and then let member states decide whether to grow the crops or not. This sort of approach could take the heat out of the EU debate on GMOs, spur more approvals and allow countries that wish to grow GMOs to do so.

The Amflora potato approval has stirred up a lot of opposition. Why is this?

The potato is controversial not because of its modified starch but because it contains marker genes that confer resistance to the antibiotics kanamycin and neomycin. Breeders of GM crops use antibiotic-resistance markers to spot which plants have successfully incorporated transgenes. They attach the antibiotic-resistance gene onto the desired trait genes, and then treat the transgenic seedlings with antibiotics, which kills those plants that haven't taken up the foreign genes. Environmental groups and some countries have had long-standing concerns about the risk of genes spreading from crops to bacteria and increasing bacterial antibiotic resistance.

What does the science say about that risk?

The EFSA considered this in the context of the Amflora application in 2005, and concluded that the risk of transfer of antibiotic resistance from plants to bacteria was remote, and that bacteria resistant to the antibiotics were already present in soil, animals and humans. That position was restated in a broader safety assessment of antibiotic-resistance markers, published by EFSA's GMO and BIOHAZ panels in June 2009. But on that occasion, two scientists, both from the BIOHAZ panel, formally disagreed with the conclusions. They argued that the risk of gene transfer might be less than remote, and that introducing genes that confer resistance to antibiotics that are used, for example, to treat multiply drug-resistant tuberculosis simply isn't a good idea.

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The reason the problem arises at all is because Amflora is a first-generation GM crop that was developed in the late 1980s. Modification technologies developed since then allow the use of alternatives to antibiotic-resistance markers, or allow such markers to be spliced out of the plant before cultivation. Indeed, although the EU, the World Health Organization and many health bodies accept that the risk of transfer of antibiotic resistance seems low, they have called for antibiotic-resistance markers in GMOs to be phased out.

More broadly, other experts say that much more publicly funded research on GMOs would lead to greater public confidence in risk assessments, which are currently heavily dependent on industry studies.

Where and when will the Amflora potato be planted?

BASF has said that it only intends to grow the potatoes in countries that want it — the company will begin planting Amflora this year on a few dozen hectares in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic. If the European Commission succeeds in its plans to break the GMO deadlock, many more hectares, and many more varieties of GM crops, may soon be growing in Europe. 

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