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Modifying GM Food Perception

Simon Barber on Europe’s reluctance to accept genetically modified foods.
December 1, 2004

Simon Barber

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.

TR: But biotech companies would seem to have the most to gain from consumer acceptance of GM foods, so shouldn’t they bear most of the educational responsibility?

Barber: They should bear some responsibility, and in more recent years, they have put effort into this. There is something called Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe, which is a program that some of the companies have put money into to try to provide materials for outreach into the food chain and to citizens, and in some schools. It’s not all-encompassing, but we are making real efforts to do that.

TR: Some agricultural biotech companies, such as Syngenta, have reduced or halted research in Europe due to consumer resistance and regulatory inactivity. How does the industry perceive current regulations?

Barber: I don’t think that the regulatory machine in the EU is running consistently yet. If you’re using this technology to develop a product and you want to have it on the market in 10 years, if the machine isn’t running consistently, you never know whether you’ll get your product to market. So perhaps one would move one’s research somewhere else, where there’s a history of consistent application of the regulation.

TR: Will some of these companies eventually return?

Barber: Until the question of how the regulatory system is going to run – is it going to run at an even speed, or is it going to be run in a discriminatory way in some countries? – is sorted out, people will probably think very carefully about that. For instance, it’s very difficult to do field trials here now. In the interest of transparency, researchers make the locations of field trials known, and many of them are destroyed every year by people with a conviction against anybody using the technology. So that is part of the judgment a company that is interested in using these technologies has to make about where it does its basic research. Europe is one of the centers of origin of this technology, in Belgium at Ghent University, 25 years ago. And I think it’s a sad thing that not just industry but also the public institutions have been much reduced in their plant science activity because of the way things have gone here. Universities are finding people don’t want to get involved in plant science because they don’t see a future for it. But we still have a commitment from companies here to continue. Bayer CropScience, which is a German company, recently opened a new facility for plant science research in Belgium, for instance. The industry does want to see this move forward, and they really do think that plant science in Europe is important.

TR: Will GM foods and crops ever enjoy the acceptance level in Europe that they have in the United States?

Barber: I would like to think so. It may be a good many years away. But if you look to see how the technology is being used to date, it’s provided benefits to farmers. I think it’s a very, very sad thing that a lot of people in the West living in urban areas don’t perceive a benefit to a farmer as a benefit to themselves, because they are benefits to us. But this is also an opportunity to diversify the way we use plants to meet some other needs in a more environmentally sustainable way. I hope eventually we’ll see Europe embrace the technology and move down these roads. It’s a tool. We say “GM,” and we think of one or two crops. But it’s a tool that we can use to do a multitude of useful things.

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