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Briefing Paper

This briefing paper is produced by public-sector scientists active in biotechnology research and farmers’ organisations that subscribe to the freedom of farmers to use the crops best suited for their needs, including genetically modified (GM) crops that have been approved through the European Union’s regulatory system.    June 2012

Executive Summary

The farmers and public-sector scientists contributing to this paper support the call of Mr. John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, for a more informed and less polarised debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and offer this briefing paper as a contribution. This briefing paper addresses:
  • Global challenges in agriculture - By 2050 Farmers need to produce 70% more food with less impact on the environment and on less land. “Sustainable intensification” requires, among other things, that farmers have crops that provide a higher yield per hectare, make better use of water, are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, have enhanced nutritional value, etc.
  • Public sector research - Modern biotechnology can contribute significantly to addressing these challenges, because it can help overcome some limitations of conventional breeding. Much public sector research aims at developing crops that have, for example, increased resistance against diseases and pests, increased tolerance to dry or saline soil, and enhanced nutrition.
  • Experiences with GM crops to date - Worldwide, many GM crop varieties have been grown on over hundreds of millions of hectares by over 16 million farmers, resulting in significant economic, social, health and environmental benefits. In the EU, only two types of GM crops are approved for cultivation, and in several EU countries growing these GM crops is banned. Meanwhile, the EU imports large quantities of GM commodities grown outside the EU.
  • The EU regulatory framework for biotechnology - The EU regulatory system for GMOs is not functioning as it is designed, because decisions are not taken within the time frames and/or are not based on the legal criterion of scientifically sound risk assessment. There are various regulatory proposals made to address the current impasse. Some of these proposals have met with concerns in relation to the Internal Market, WTO rules, the role of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and farming and research in general.
  • Survey amongst farmers and scientists - A pilot survey has been conducted among farmers and scientists in 12 EU countries to assess: 1) the potential role of GM crops in agriculture in the EU, 2) experiences of farmers, and 3) experiences of public-sector scientists. The conclusions from the survey include the following:
  • There are many constraints in cultivating crops and trees in Europe that result in significant losses of yield and/or substantial use of pesticides, fertilisers and/or water. For many of these constraints conventional breeding has limited potential to provide adequate solutions, whereas biotechnological tools are already available or in an advanced stage of development.
  • Current GMO policies in the EU deprive farmers of potential benefits and of the freedom to choose, and these policies hinder public-sector research for sustainable agriculture.
  • In the 12 countries in which the survey was conducted there are farmers who wish to have the freedom to use the crops they find best suited for their needs, including approved GM crops.
  • Much public-sector research in Europe has been slowed, stopped or moved abroad, because of regulatory hurdles and costs to prevent destruction of field tests.
The briefing paper ends with recommendations, including:
  • Governments and EU institutions are urged to execute the current regulatory system in the way they themselves designed it, while upholding the freedom of choice for farmers.
  • Farmers and public-sector scientists are called upon to better engage with the general public and policy makers and to collaborate in further developing the survey-database
Background information will be placed and updated on:  www.greenbiotech.eu   1. Global challenges in agriculture   The world community faces daunting challenges. Over 1 billion people are malnourished, often resulting in chronic diseases and premature deaths. Agriculture burdens the environment through pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, ploughing and conversion of natural habitats. The situation is compounded further by the growth of the world population and climate change. According to the United Nations Food- and Agriculture Organisation FAO, by 2050 the world will have to produce 70% more food. The agricultural production of feed, fibre and biomass will also have to increase substantially, i.e. there is an urgent need for “sustainable intensification”. Farmers need crops that provide a higher yield per hectare, make better use of water, are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, and have enhanced nutritional value, amongst other traits. As has been recognised repeatedly since the Earth Summit in 1992[1], no single technology can solve those complex challenges by itself, but modern biotechnology can contribute significantly to solving them.   2. PUBLIC RESEARCH IN MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY   Modern biotechnology is a key enabling technology that can introduce specific changes in the genetic material of plants, animals and micro-organisms. The potential of these techniques for crop plants and trees must be understood in the context of the limitations of conventional breeding: -        Conventional breeding is limited in its capabilities of moving valuable genes between species. For example, a disease resistance trait available in a wheat variety cannot be crossed into a maize plant. -        Breeding a trait into a crop can take a very long time. For example, it can take apple breeders decades to introduce a disease resistance in apple varieties. -        For some species, such as bananas, sexual crossing is extremely difficult if not impossible. -        With conventional breeding not only the desired genes are crossed into the variety of choice, but also the tens of thousands other genes that might be undesirable. To overcome the limitations of conventional breeding, scientists have developed techniques over the last few decades that have made it possible to: 1)      identify a specific gene responsible for a trait in an organism, 2)      isolate the gene that controls that trait, 3)      transfer it to cells through a process called “transformation”. Cells that carry the new gene are then regenerated to produce a plant whose progeny carry the new gene and express the desired trait. Genetic engineering is used to transfer genes and (i) can be much faster than conventional breeding, (ii) is more precise than typical plant breeding approaches, and (iii) can be used to move genes that generally cannot be moved by standard genetic crossing. The reason that in principle any gene from any organism (micro-organism, plant or animal) can be made to function in any other organism is because genes are made of DNA and the genetic code is universal in all organisms. In fact many genes found in one organism can also be found in another. For example many genes of plants are also found in other plants, in fungi, in bacteria, and in animals. Much of the current public research in modern agricultural biotechnology aims to strengthen the economic, social and/or environmental sustainability of the production of food, feed and biomass. Governments and international organisations have over the past 30 years invested substantially, and will continue to invest, in research and development of modern agricultural biotechnology. The types of traits or characteristics that have been and are developed by scientists in public sector research include: -        Increased tolerance to  “biotic stress”, e.g.: resistance to disease and pests: -        Increased tolerance to  “abiotic stress”, e.g.: tolerance to drought, saline soils and water: -        Enhanced nutritional value in traditional crops, e.g.: provitamin A, vitamin B9, vitamin E, iron, zinc, oil composition and high-quality protein -        Other important characteristics, e.g.: herbicide tolerance, increasing  nitrogen use efficiency, reducing existing levels of toxic or allergenic compounds, changing starch composition, increasing yield of seeds, adjusting morphology of crops. Further details and background information about public sector research in modern biotechnology can be found on www.greenbiotechnology.eu.   3. EXPERIENCES WITH GM CROPS TO DATE   Outside the EU, the introduction of GM crops has led to one of the most rapid, if not the fastest, adoption of an innovation in the history of agriculture. The large scale cultivation of GM crops by farmers started in 1996 with the introduction of herbicide tolerant soybean and canola, as well as insect-resistant maize and cotton. From 1996 onward the cultivation of GM crops on the global level has shown an over 10% yearly increase. Data from 2011 show a worldwide GM crop cultivation area of 160 million hectares, on over 29 countries, and involving over 15 million farmers half of whom manage small farms. The largest area of GM crop production is found in North America (Canada, USA), followed by South America (Argentina, Brazil), and Asia (China and India). Within the EU only two types of GM crops are approved for cultivation: genetically modified insect resistant maize, and a GM potato with a changed starch composition that allows processing with less energy, water and chemicals. In 2011, GM insect-resistant maize was planted on around 115,000 hectares in six EU countries, which was up 26% from 2010. A range of peer-reviewed impact studies and specific case studies have analysed the environmental, socio-economic and productivity impact of these crops. The conclusions of these reports can be summarised as follows: 1) Reduced herbicide use and improved soil management, 2) Decreased use of pesticides and lower mycotoxin levels, 3) Increased farmer income and farmer health due to increased yield and reduced use of herbicides, insecticides, and fossil fuels. Reduced herbicide use and improved soil management The application of herbicide tolerance in crops such as soybean, maize, oilseed rape and cotton has significantly reduced the typical yield losses due to weeds. In addition, it has allowed farmers to replace the use of more persistent herbicides by less persistent ones. As a consequence there is a decrease in chemical contaminants in runoff of water from farm lands, in subterranean water, and in streams. A third important impact of herbicide tolerant crops is that they promote the use of the so-called “no-till” systems of agriculture. This type of agriculture leaves the crop residues on the field after the harvest and does not plough them under in winter. These crop residues offer benefits such as decreased soil run-off and less erosion, better retention of moisture, a much better carbon sequestration, decreased use of machinery and fuel, and increased the humus content of the soil, which is positive for soil fertility and sustainable productivity. Calculations also show the positive impact of this strategy in terms of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Decreased use of pesticides and lower mycotoxin levels Insect pests can cause serious crop damage. In Spain, for example, the European corn borer can cause farmers to lose up to 15 per cent of their maize yield in years with high insect infestation. In 2011, Spanish farmers cultivated almost 98,000 ha of GM insect-tolerant MON810 maize. The introduction of GM insect-tolerant crops has led to a significant decrease in the amount of insecticides used. Decreased insecticide use has a beneficial environmental impact, as well as beneficial impact on farmer health. Calculations based on data from 2002 to 2004 in Spain showed that, primarily due to reduced pesticide spraying, there was an economic benefit to farmers from growing the GM insect-resistant maize ranging from € 3 to € 135 per ha. In addition, the introduction of insect resistance in maize has led to a decline in the presence of some cancer-causing mycotoxins, produced by fungi that commonly infest corn kernels following insect damage. The insect-resistant maize has less insect damage resulting in reduced opportunities for fungal infestation, resulting in a reduction of mycotoxin levels. In field trials in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and France, and in real life situations in Spain, GM insect-resistant maize contained up to 100 times less of these mycotoxins compared to conventional maize, depending on agro-ecology and insect infestations. Further details and background information about experiences with GM crops to date will be can be found on www.greenbiotech.eu. Assessment of unintended effects on human health or the environment.  All GM crops that are cultivated worldwide have been subject to rigorous risk assessments before their commercial use, as well as to various approaches of surveillance to identify unintended adverse effects on human health or the environment. In addition, over the last decades hundreds of millions Euros have been spent on risk assessment research, within and outside the EU. An analysis of the substantial amount of information included in risk assessment reports, surveillance documentation, and risk assessment research reports shows the following:
  • The techniques of genetic engineering carry no inherent risks. See for example the report titled “EU Commission-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (1985-2000)”[2], where it is stated that “The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably makes GMOs even safer than conventional plants and foods.” The European Commission report titled "A decade of EU-funded GMO research, 2001-2010”[3], which analysed research projects of over more than 400 independent research groups, concluded that  “Biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.
  • The traits that have been introduced in plants to date are to a large extent the type of agronomic traits – such as insect resistance, disease resistance and herbicide  tolerance – that are already present in many crop plants, or have been introduced by traditional breeding techniques.
  • After over 25 years with tens of thousands of field trials with GMOs and after over 16 years of commercial planting of GM crop varieties on a total of almost 2 billion hectares a substantial body of knowledge and experience has accumulated. There are no substantiated cases of adverse effects resulting from the genetic modification.
  • This latter conclusion leaves of course unchanged that unwise use of GM crops can cause unintended effects, as is the case of unwise use of any tool. For example, indiscriminate use of herbicides can result in resistance development in weeds. These effects are not the result of the genetic modification, but of poor agronomic practices, which can occur in the same way with conventionally bred herbicide tolerant plants.
Further details and background information about assessment of unintended effects on human health or the environment can be found on www.greenbiotech.eu.   4. THE EU REGULATORY FRAMEWORK FOR GMOS   The current EU regulatory framework The EU legislation on GMOs originally came into force in 1990 and was amended about 10 years later when the EU regulatory framework for GMOs was complemented with EU Regulations. The current, comprehensive regulatory framework for GMOs in the EU consists of various Directives and Regulations:
  • Directive 2009/41/EC on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms
  • Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms
  • Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed
  • Regulation (EC) No 1830/2003 on labelling and traceability of GMOs
  • Regulation (EC) No 1946/2003 on the transboundary movements of GMOs
These Directives and Regulations are complemented by various Decisions and guidelines. The functioning of the current regulatory framework Two evaluation reports commissioned by the European Commission[4] show widespread dissatisfaction with the way the in which the EU regulatory system for GMOs is implemented. While the implementation of Directive 2009/41 on contained use does not appear to cause major problems[5], the procedures for field trials and product approvals of Directive 2001/18 and Regulation 1829/2003 are not functioning as they are designed, because it routinely exceeds the legal timelines[6]. In addition, in several EU member states, the cultivation of one or both of the EU GM approved crops is banned without scientifically sound justification as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated on repeated occasions. Initiatives for regulatory reform Considering the general impasse in GMO decision making, the European institutions and Member States have taken various initiatives to improve the current situation. Two regulatory proposals currently under discussion are:
  • The “cultivation nationalisation” proposal, which aims to allow Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of EU approved GMOs based on reasons other than scientific risk assessment.
  • Transformation of the EFSA guidance into a Regulation.
These proposals have met with concerns about the Internal Market, WTO rules, the role of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and farming and research in general. Further details and background information about the EU regulatory framework for biotechnology can be found on www.greenbiotech.eu.   5. SURVEY AMONGST FARMERS AND PUBLIC SECTOR RESEARCHERS    To contribute to a more informed debate on GMOs, the contributors to this briefing paper have conducted a pilot survey among scientists and farmers to assess:
  1. The need for GM crops in the EU
  2. Experiences of farmers who use GM crops and of farmers who are allowed to do so
  3. Experiences of public sector scientists developing and testing GMOs and scientists who are allowed to do so.
To assess the need for GM crops in the EU, the survey evaluated:
  1. Key crops grown in the different countries, and major constraints faced by farmers in growing these crops, such as pests, diseases, drought, etc.
  2. For each of these constraints, the following aspects were addressed:
    • The consequences of these constraints, for example as a percentage of yield loss
    • Current management practices, such as pesticide application
  • Relevant biotechnological research in the public sector in the country, including a description of the research, the current status and contact points.
This pilot survey was, as a start, conducted by farmers’ organisations and public sector research institutes in 12 EU Member States. Per country a summary was prepared outlining key agricultural crops grown in the country (based on acreage and value), including major challenges faced by farmers in growing these crops.  A brief (and by no means exhaustive) snap shot of the on-going and planned public sector biotechnology research aimed at addressing these challenges was outlined. The results of the pilot survey are presented in a matrix and in overviews per country, can be found on www.greenbiotech.eu.   6. CONCLUSIONS   The results of the survey allow for the following conclusions:
  • There is a large variety of constraints in many of the crops and trees cultivated in Europe that limit the potential to move towards sustainable agriculture and the full use of renewable resources within the bioeconomy. These constraints include an expanding range of pests and diseases, and stress factors such as drought and flooding brought about by climate change, as well as the need to increase yields on the same land acreage with lower inputs.
  • These constraints can result in significant losses of crop yield.
  • Current practices to address these constraints include use of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, bactericides, fertilisers, ploughing, irrigation, as well as the use of chemicals, energy and water during production of agricultural chemicals and during farming operations. Yield losses in the EU mean increased imports from third countries, leading to food insecurity in these countries because of higher prices and lower local supplies. Already today, the EU has a considerable extra-territorial footprint in the agricultural systems of third countries.
  • For many of these constraints, the options for conventional breeding to address these constraints are often limited, sometimes absent or would take a very long time to produce results.
  • Biotechnological tools that can help overcome many of these constraints are already available or in advanced stage of development.
  • In countries where approved GM crops were grown commercially, various studies confirm that while the impacts may vary from case to case, in general the anticipated environmental, human health and socio-economic benefits have been realised.
  • Research conducted at the University of Reading shows that if farmers in the EU had access to the same GM crops to which millions of farmers outside the EU have access, the European farming community could annually increase its income by more than 400 Million Euro[7].
  • Research conducted by the Technische Universitaet Muenchen in 3 EU countries shows that farmers are deprived from an additional tool that could help them reduce pesticide use and increase yield and income by national bans on EU approved GM crops[8].
  • The above studies came to these conclusions while only looking at the GM crops that are currently available to farmers outside the EU. The potential for additional environmental and socio-economic benefits as a consequence will increase multifold when taking into consideration other crops grown in the EU and constraints such as other diseases, pests, drought, flooding, and plant based biomaterials, such as biofuels, biocoatings, composition and morphology. Agricultural biotechnology is still a young technology but the field is rapidly developing.
  • In all the countries in which the survey was conducted there are farmers who wish to have the freedom to grow the crops they find best suited for their needs, including GM crops that have been approved through the EU regulatory system. Increasingly, these farmers are getting organised on the national and EU level.
  • It is also clear from the survey that in various countries farmers are hesitant to use GM crops that are approved at the EU level, because of the additional administrative burden, and/or fear that their crops may be destroyed
  • Much public sector research in agricultural biotechnology in Europe has been slowed, stopped or moved abroad, because of increasing regulatory hurdles and costs to prevent destruction of field research. Further details and background information on detailed examples of such ‘brain drain will be included and updated on www.greenbiotech.eu.
  1. Governments and EU institutions are urged to target R&D programmes on key constraints in agricultural production.
  2. Research institutes and farmers organisations are called upon to collaborate in further developing the survey database of crops, constraints, and biotechnological approaches, to facilitate exchange of information on available tools.
  3. Governments and EU institutions are urged to implement the current regulatory system in the way they themselves designed it, i.e. science based, transparent, predictable and with respect for legal time frames and the legal criteria for decision making, and while upholding the freedom of choice for farmers.
  4. Governments, EU institutions, research institutes, and farmers’ organisations are called upon to engage with the general public and policy makers in a dialogue about the current urgent challenges in agricultural production, and of the role that modern biotechnology can play in helping to find solutions for the current challenges.
  5. There is a need for increased and regular participation by European farmers and farmers’ organisations in the national and EU-wide dialogues regarding the regulatory framework for GMOs. This would contribute to a better-informed debate, particularly regarding the practical experiences with regulatory procedures for commercial cultivation, notifications, co-existence measures, and the like. It would also help the debate on actual socio-economic and environmental impacts derived from GMO cultivation.
  6. Similarly, public-sector scientists should have a continued and more prominent role in current and future discussions on biotechnology in the EU. Our survey has demonstrated the range of “second generation” traits under investigation in public sector research organization and universities –  going well beyond insect resistance and herbicide tolerance – all of which could have a major positive impact on farming practices, and food quality and safety. As the EU wishes to move towards a “Knowledge Based Bio-Economy”, this type of advanced research should be actively supported.
   Contributors to this briefing paper:  
  • AgroBiotechRom (Romania, www.agrobiotechrom.ro),
  • Asociación Agraria Jóvenes Agricultores (ASAJA, Spain, www.asajanet.com),
  • Association Française des Biotechnologies Végétales (AFBV),
  • FuturAgra (Italy, http://www.futuragra.it/),
  • InnoPlanta (Germany, www.innoplanta.de/),
  • National Farmers Union (England and Wales, www.nfuonline.com),
  • National Federation of Agricultural Cooperators and Producers (MOSZ, Hungary)
  • Conservation Agriculture Association (APOSOLO, Portugal, www.aposolo.pt),
  • Prof. Klaus Ammann, emeritus University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Prof. Bojin Bojinov, Dean, Faculty of Agriculture, Agricultural University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  • Prof. Selim Cetiner, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Dr. René Custers, Flanders Interuniversity Institute for biotechnology (VIB)
  • Dr. Lucia De Souza, Agroscope Reckenholz-Tikon Research Station ART, Zurich, Switzerland,
  • Prof. Stefan Jansson, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Umeå University, Sweden
  • Mr. John Komen, Program for Biosafety Systems, International Food Policy Research Institute, Netherlands
  • Dr. Marcel Kuntz, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale, Institut de Recherches en Technologies et Sciences pour le Vivant (iRTSV), France.
  • Dr. Piero A. Morandini, University of Milan, Dept. of Biology, Milan, Italy
  • Dr. Stefan Rauschen, RWTH Aachen University, Germany
  • Dr. Agnès RICROCH, AgroParisTech, Université Paris-Sud. Paris, France
  • Dra. Victoria Marfà Riera, Centre de Recerca en Agrigenòmica (CRAG), BARCELONA, Spain.
  • Prof. Ioan Rosca, Universitatea de Stiinte Agricole si Medicina Veterinara, Bucharest, Romania
  • Dr Penny Sparrow, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
  • Prof. Charles Spillane, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland.
  • Mgr. Zdeňka Svobodová, Biology Centre AS CR, University of South Bohemia, České Budějovice, Czech Republic
  • Prof. Piet van der Meer, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium.
  • Em. Prof. Marc Van Montagu, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium, Chairman PRRI (www.pubresreg.org).

[1] Add reference UNCED 1992
[2] Reference
[3] Reference
[4] GHK Consulting Ltd. 2009. – reference
[5] Reference
[6] Reference
[7] Reference
[8] Reference


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