Position: Director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio, the European biotech industry association
Issue: Approval of genetically modified foods in Europe. Europeans have been far more nervous about the safety of GM foods than North Americans, essentially halting the approval of new varieties since 1998. Are skittish regulators and consumers finally warming up to the technology?
Personal Point of Impact: Helped develop Canada’s regulatory system for GM plants and worked at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development on biotechnology and regulatory harmonization. Currently leads EuropaBio’s efforts to inform regulators and policymakers about agricultural biotechnology and present industry views on policy issues.
Technology Review: After almost six years in which no genetically modified food or crop had been approved for sale in Europe, a few varieties of corn finally made it through the regulatory process this year. Where do things stand now?
Simon Barber: There is a complete regulatory framework in place for assessment and approval of genetically modified plants that are going to be grown or imported for food or food ingredients or animal feed. We have seen two approvals through that process for imports for food and animal-feed use of maize, for instance. So that system seems to be beginning to work. Getting approvals to grow new GM crops here, that’s a different matter. That doesn’t seem to be moving yet.
TR: Why not? Isn’t there a process to approve new GM crops for cultivation?
Barber: The framework is there. What is under discussion, though, is the concept of coexistence: once a crop has approval, how can I, as a farmer, choose to grow one of these varieties while minimizing any pollen and gene movement into my neighbor’s crops? At the moment, I don’t think we anticipate having new EU legislation on coexistence; we see the European Commission having its guidelines and then the member states making their own legislation around those guidelines. Some member states are developing their rules in a way that might well prohibit their farmers from ever choosing genetically modified seed, but others are being more pragmatic. The fact that the coexistence rules are in development doesn’t give a very strong incentive for people to go for authorization to cultivate just at the moment.
TR: Why have European consumers been so wary about GM foods?
Barber: There are groups that have made a huge amount of noise about it. They raise the question of the precautionary principle and say that we’re not absolutely certain of safety – which actually we can say about everything. If we’re honest, no science will say that anything is 100 percent safe. But there have been food scares here, such as mad cow, which means that our citizens are concerned about the safety of their food supply. There isn’t an awful lot of what I would call very balanced debate; the debate tends to be very antagonistic, so you would have people very much “for” talking to people very much “against.” If people don’t have things explained to them well, there’s room there for them to have concerns, and they’re legitimate concerns.
TR: Has the European biotech industry done its share to explain the technology?
Barber: They have recently made more efforts in that direction, but at the outset perhaps not as much as they ought. But it’s not just the job of the industry. If you look at the industry, it’s very small compared to the others that it supports. Plant variety developers and people who produce seed – that’s our industry – support the farmers, which is a larger industry; the farmers then support food processors, and the value gets bigger and bigger. At the top, one U.K. supermarket chain probably has the same annual turnover as the whole international seed trade. So in some ways, we are a limited resource to be able to teach everybody in the world about modern biology and its uses. It’s something that I think everybody has to be involved in. It’s easy for people, once this had become an issue, to say, well, industry didn’t do a good job, but before anything can be imported into Europe and used as animal feed or as an ingredient as food for us humans, it had to go through a safety approval process. The governments of the EU and the EU itself have institutions that did all this. Well, how were they explaining to their citizens what was going on? It’s something that has to be shared across the board.