EU Sparks Controversy with Approval of GM Potato

17 March 2010

In a departure from traditional policy, the EU has approved German chemical company BASF's genetically modified (GM) Amflora potato for industrial cultivation. The move has sparked controversy over the crop's antibiotic resistant properties, which critics say could impact antimicrobials - substances that help destroy or resist disease-causing microorganisms.

The decision to approve the GM crop for cultivation is the first in over a decade-the last being Monsanto's MON 810 insect-repellent corn in 1998. The move is pivotal on two accounts: not only does it represent a change in policy of the traditionally GM-resistant EU, it also marks a departure from the collective decision-making tendencies of the body by deferring specific decisions on whether to grow the GM products to member countries themselves.

The GM Amflora potatoes are intended for industrial purposes, with the modification allowing the tuber to produce significantly more starch when manufacturing products such as paper and textiles. Conventional potatoes produce two types of starch; the Amflora consists nearly entirely of the type ideal for technical applications, reducing by-product and waste and optimising the use of potatoes for starch. These starch potatoes, the kind specifically used for industrial purposes, are most commonly grown and processed in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Poland. Already, BASF intends to plant the crop in Germany and the Czech Republic, with Sweden and the Netherlands expected to begin cultivating the crop shortly after.

Safeguarding measures

Controversy over the approval of the Amflora potatoes centred on the use of an antibiotic-resistant gene that serves as a marker for the efficacy of the modifications.

A memo released by the European Commission states that the use of the Antibiotic Resistant Marker (ARM) gene in the potato received high scrutiny in the decision making process and assures European citizens that the EU will implement stringent regulations to ensure that the crop does not propagate or disperse the controversial gene into the environment. In 2007, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) acknowledged the importance of guaranteeing that the antibiotic-resistant crop does not interfere with the therapeutic properties of medicinal antibiotics. However, the body now says that the ARM is safe and that it will have no harmful effect.

In addition to the decision regarding the cultivation of the Amflora potato, the European Commission also adopted decisions allowing the import and processing of three Monsanto types of GM maize for food and feed.

Reactions to the move

Some European manufacturers have claimed that the EU's hesitation to approve the cultivation of GM crops has hurt the competitiveness of European farmers and biotech companies, and compromised the bloc's long-term food security. Nevertheless, several member states continue to express significant concern over GM foods, despite scientific research that the modifications pose no health risk.

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's EU Policy Director on Genetic Engineering, called the application of the ARM and admittance of the potato "problematic," adding that he finds it "shocking that one of the Commission's first official acts is to authorise a GM crop that puts the environment and public health at risk." Italy has threatened to rally other EU states against the measures, with the country's agriculture minister, Luca Zaia, heading the charge. In addition to the GM issue itself, Zaia has said that he believes the decision infringes on the sovereignty of EU member states.

The decision marks a commitment by EC President José Manuel Barroso to approach the GM question in the EU with what he calls sound science, rather than emotions. The EU decision comes in the wake of a string of national bans against the cultivation of MON 810 implemented last year despite safety reassurances from Brussels.

In the US, Dick Lugar, a senator and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lauded the decision, saying that the approval of Amflora potatoes could be a first step toward more general EU acceptance of biotech products. The US has long been critical of the EU's anti-GM position, arguing that it is not in line with Europe's WTO commitments.

ICTSD reporting; "Brussels breaks ground with go-ahead for modified potato," FINANCIAL TIMES, 3 March 2010; "EU Approves First Modified Crop for Planting in 12 Years," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2 March 2010, "EU Clears Biotech Potato for Cultivation," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2 March 2010; "EU Commission under fire over GM Potato," THE PARLIAMENT.COM, 9 March 2010; "European Commission okays GM Potatoes," FRANCE 24, 03 March 2010; "GM potato Cleared for EU Farming," BBC NEWS, 2 March 2010; "Is the EU finall embracing GM crops?" REUTERS, 2 March 2010.

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