Playing the long game for GM crops in Europe

Is Europe a no-go zone for GM crops? Those are genetically modified crops, also called genetically engineered (GE) crops or biotech crops. Whether we’re a no-go zone for GM depends on whether you look at the short game or the long game.

We mostly don’t grow GM crops here in Europe but we benefit from them here. Perhaps we’re crying NIMBY. Not In My Back Yard.

Here’s how the short game looks. The US biotechnology giant, Monsanto, is no longer trying to get new GM crop approvals in Europe. It’s just keeping on with its insect-resistant GM maize (corn) called MON810. The German chemical giant, BASF, is no longer aiming for commercial success with its stodgy-starched GM potato called Amflora.

Charlie Dunmore at Planet Ark tells us that Monsanto will soon withdraw its requests to the European Union (EU) to approve new GM crops. ‘Monsanto Co said on Wednesday it will withdraw all pending approval requests to grow new types of genetically modified crops in the European Union, due to the lack of commercial prospects for cultivation there… Monsanto’s President and Managing Director for Europe, Jose Manuel Madero, told [news agency] Reuters [that]… ‘the decision would allow the company to focus on growing its conventional seeds business in Europe, as well as securing EU approvals to import its genetically modified crop varieties widely grown in the United States and South America.

‘The decision covered five EU approval requests to grow genetically modified maize [corn (Zea mays)], plus one soybean [soya (Glycine max)] and one sugar beet [high-sucrose beet (Beta vulgaris)]. The company said it would not withdraw its application to renew the approval for its insect-resistant MON810 maize – the only GMO crop currently cultivated commercially in Europe.’ I’m grateful to my fellow blogger narhvalur for drawing attention to this. Here’s the news in Monsanto’s own words.

We await renewal (or not) of the existing licence to grow one variety of Bt maize called MON810. MON810 makes an insecticide called Bt toxin in its tissues. So when insect pests eat MON810, the insects die unless they’ve evolved resistance to the toxin. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) tells us that MON810 is also called YieldGard or MaizeGard. ISAAA tells us where MON810 is being grown commercially in Europe. Mostly that’s in Spain.

The only other GM crop that can be grown commercially in Europe, under a current licence, has already been withdrawn from fields here. That crop is a potato (Solanum tuberosum) called Amflora. Amflora isn’t for people to eat. It makes a particular kind of starch, pure amylopectin instead of the mixture of amylopectin and amylose that makes up most natural starches. Amylopectin has a branched structure to its molecules. So it’s not very soluble in water. This is the kind of starch that children enjoy when they make flour-and-water glue, or mash up wet newspaper to make papier mache. For engineers, amylopectin is useful for making paper and yarn.

The Amflora potato was developed by BASF but it wasn’t a commercial success. So in Europe, BASF stopped promoting Amflora and stopped seeking approval for other GM potatoes. [Edit: BASF withdrew Amflora more for legal reasons than for commercial reasons, see ‘pingback’ below.]

But here’s where the ‘long game’ comes in. This isn’t only about growing GM crops on European soil. There’s international trade. I’ve mentioned before that trade negotiations across the Atlantic may change the GM landscape.

Even if we don’t get an influx of GM crop plantings here in Europe, we’re importing plenty of GM products. GeneWatch tells us about GM crops and foods in Britain and Europe. ‘Large quantities of GM soya and maize are imported into Europe, including Britain, as animal feed. Meat and dairy products fed on GM animal feed are not labelled as GM-fed in British supermarkets. The EU has also decided to allow GM feed to include trace levels of crops which have no safety approval in Europe.’

Does it matter? You might choose to follow my ‘genetic modification’ tag for discussion, including my strong opinion that GM isn’t mainly about food safety. It’s about farmers’ ownership of their seeds, and it’s about how GM crops affect whole ecosystems. In that sense, keeping GM crops out of European fields might be just a way to export harm.

Do you think we Europeans are being NIMBY about this? We could wear a t-shirt. ‘GM Crops – Not In My Back Yard!’

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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12 Responses to Playing the long game for GM crops in Europe

  1. Eqfe says:

    If I were you I would prefer for it to be grown somewhere else so that the Roundup and other chemicals used pollute someone else’s soil and ground water.

    • argylesock says:

      Ouch. I don’t want to move to the States for several reasons, one of which is the overuse of Roundup. After writing the post above, I’m thinking about whether GM crops could be useful in some contexts. But not when used the way they’re used now.

  2. Eqfe says:

    I quite agree. GMO was advertised with so much promise in the beginning. But it’s not how it turned out. And all of our home improvement stores carry Roundup by the gallon for use around homes for weed control which just horrifies me.

  3. Pingback: Getting to the grist about GM (part 3) | Science on the Land

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