BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium The European Commission has raised the stakes again in its bid to win broader backing for biotechnology. European Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler called for an end to what he described as the European Union’s “muddling through” policy.

Speaking at an international food exhibition in Brussels, he warned that Europe could be left behind on new technologies.

Fischler’s warning is part of the Commission’s concerted effort to persuade the EU member state leaders to back biotechnology at the upcoming summit meeting in Barcelona, Spain, on March 15. The Commission wants endorsement of the strategy paper it released in January, and it wants member states to drop the moratorium they have imposed on new authorizations of GMO products in Europe.

“Europe lacks a shared vision and a common objective regarding genetically modified organisms. Currently, our response to the challenges of GMOs is muddling through,’” Fischler said, in a departure from the Commission’s normally more measured tones. “We have to stop making decisions on such a difficult issue as biotechnology on a purely emotional basis. It is high time that Europe finds a way to address questions, such as: Can we eat food that has been genetically modified?’ Do GMOs represent a threat to the environment?’ Could the use of GM seeds have a negative impact on other plants?’”

Highlighting the need to persuade the general public that their interests can be adequately protected by EU rules, Fischler said, “Agriculture today is demand driven, and we will not be able to sell our products if we do not win the confidence of the consumers.”

He recognized consumer and environmentalist concerns over the possibility of accidental contamination, and told farmers that in their own interests they would have to assume greater discipline over GMO farming techniques. He urged adoption of a policy that protects farmers who grow conventional or organic crops from accidental GMO contamination. “In the future, the conventional farms will have to follow the example of organic farming. Farms will have to segregate production and marketing chains, introduce minimum distances but also different sowing dates between GM and non-GM crop varieties,” he said.

“The consumer must be free to choose between GM and non-GM products. In order to do so, we have to introduce an EU-wide labeling system. However, the labeling will be worthless if we do not manage to segregate GM and GM-free on the fields of European farmers,” he said.

The Commission already has proposed measures to ensure identification of products containing GMOs, including clear labeling provisions for consumers, but the proposal has not been cleared through the EU’s complex legislative procedure.

But Fischler went further, offering some new refinements of Commission thinking on the sort of controls that would be needed to provide full consumer reassurance. Measures should be proportionate to the risks relating to different crops, he said. For potatoes, for instance, co-existence does not present a big problem with the thresholds of the current Commission proposals. But for maize, he said, changes in farming practices are needed to keep adventitious presence below the threshold. And for seed production of oilseed rape, the necessary changes in farming practices can be substantial, and their costs may be fairly high. This makes co-existence difficult from a technical, as well as an economic, point of view.

Meanwhile, the European biotechnology industry has been bidding to counter the negative publicity recently generated in Europe about GMO contamination (U.S. and Canadian farmers toured European capitals last month complaining that biotechnology companies were damaging their livelihoods and that adventitious GMO contamination was ruining their conventional crops).

Europa-Bio, the European biotechnology industry association, has been publicizing the testimony of African farmers who claim that biotechnology has been a major aid to their production. Nhlela Phinias Gumede, one of more than 1,000 small-scale farmers who have opted to grow GM cotton in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa, said he used to spend up to $200 on spraying his crop each season. Now he spends only about $20. He cultivates Bollgard, a variety of insect-resistant Bt cotton, modified to protect the cotton plant from the common and persistent bollworm cotton pest. Yields have increased by more than 25 percent, he said. “We can attend to other things besides staying in the field. Our standard of living is very much improved. We have money to send our children to school.”