London (April 29th, 2005) – Just five years ago, at a public meeting in the presence of hundreds of people (including members of CropGen), one of the senior figures in the UK’s organic sector predicted that within five years GM crops and foods would have disappeared, rejected and consigned to history. Yet this past week has turned out to be one of the most momentous in the progress of agricultural biotechnology. It just shows how far adrift wish fulfilment can take you.

In Europe, the EU Commission adopted proposals to be sent to the Council of Ministers asking five Member states to lift their bans on certain authorised genetically modified organisms: GM maize varieties T25 and MON810 banned in Austria, GM maize Bt176 banned in Austria, Germany and Luxembourg, the oilseed rape varieties MS1xRF1 banned in France and Topas 19/2 banned in France and Greece. The Commission's proposals are scientifically backed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The Council can either adopt or reject the proposals with a qualified majority. If no decision is taken after three months, the files return to the Commission who can then adopt them. If adopted, the Member States in question would have to repeal their national bans at the latest 20 days after they are formally notified of the respective decisions.

Past experience suggests that no agreement will be reached and that the Commission itself will adopt the proposals. Burying heads in the sand gets you nowhere.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese Council of Ministers decided on April 21 that farmers will be allowed to grow several varieties of genetically modified maize during the next growing season. In total, Portuguese farmers will have access to 17 new varieties of genetically engineered maize from different seed providers.

But the big news comes from China. In field trials there, farmers growing GM rice have reported crop yields up by 10%, pesticide use down 80% and fewer pesticide-related health problems. There have been preliminary accounts before about these developments, particularly about massive reductions in the pesticide used for cotton, with immediate health benefits from farmers who not infrequently use back-packs with inadequate personal protection; more than 50,000 farmers have been suffering from pesticide poisoning, with 400-500 fatalities annually. Now we have chapter and verse.

W hen compared with conventional varieties, GM rice allowed the farmers to reduce pesticide for controlling the rice stem borer by 80%. More than 60% of farmers planting insect-resistant GM rice used no insecticide at all while almost 90% did not have to spray specifically for the stem borer. Moreover, the average yields of the GM varieties were 6-9% higher than those of conventional rice varieties.

The results, published in the journal Science, suggest that China is on the threshold of commercialising GM rice, the world’s most important crop in the world’s most populous country. Thus has five years of agricultural biotechnology been rejected and consigned to history.

Sources:

1. Commission sends proposals on GMOs to Council. Food Law News - EU – 2005 (26 April 2005) (http://www.foodlaw.rdg.ac.uk/news/eu-05037.htm)

2. Green light for transgenic maize in Portugal. Checkbiotech (April 28, 2005) (http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=search&search=Portugal&doc_id=10210&start=1&fullsearch=0)

3 . J. Huang, R. Hu, S. Rozelle and C. Pray (2005). Insect-Resistant GM Rice in Farmers' Fields: Assessing Productivity and Health Effects in China, Science, 308, 688-690. (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/308/5722/688 – subscription only)

4 . China poised for GM future as rice yields leap 10pc. Daily Telegraph (29 April 2005) (http://portal.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/04/29/wrice29.xml&sSheet=/news/2005/04/29/ixworld.html)


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  A week to remember