November 5, 2016 by Staff Reporter
In a year when you’d think the news couldn’t get any more complicated and bizarre, three announcements – one at EU level, one from the UK and one from the US – show that the governmental love affair with GMOs remains as strong as ever.
This week scientists at the Rothamsted Research – where much of the UK’s research into genetically modified crops is carried out – applied for permission for a new field trial of GM wheat. At the same time EU regulators announced a push to get approval for new strains of GM maize in in Europe, and US regulators have pushed ahead with the authorisation of new GM potato varieties.
The last open air wheat trials in the UK took place in 2012 at a Rothamsted Research Station in Hertfordshire.
The wheat strain, Cadenza, contained two key genetic alterations. One (which earned the strain the nickname ‘whiffy wheat’) produced a smell similar to mint, which was meant to keep aphids at bay, while attracting their natural predator, the wasp. The other was a synthetic (synbio) gene similar to one commonly found in cows. This was the first synthetic copy of an animal gene used in a GM trial.
Several high profile groups protested the open air trial and crucially the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, and the Real Bread Campaign submitted a pledge to DEFRA – signed by over 350 bakers, millers, farmers and consumers – saying they refused to use GM wheat,
Three years and a cost to the public purse of nearly £1.5 million and it was clear that the trial had failed. The GM wheat which seemed to work in the lab did not deter aphids in the real world.
And so here we go again. The current proposed trial is for another strain of GM Cadenza wheat that is supposed to boost yields by boosting photosynthesis.
But within the genetic modification is also a gene that allows the plant to tolerate repeated sprayings with the herbicide glufosinate, though the researchers say they won’t be using this during the trial.
Glufosinate, is a reproductive toxin and its uses have been restricted in the EU since 2013. Like glyphosate, it is often used as a pre-harvest desiccant, and residues can also be found in foods that humans eat such as include potatoes, peas, beans, corn, wheat and barley. Glufosinate tolerance has been engineered into several GM crops already including soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton.
In the US and elsewhere, herbicide tolerance has been shown to increase rather than decrease pesticide use.
GM wheat has been available for some time in the US and Canada but it has never been commercialised because there has never been a market for it. At the moment it seems unlikely that it will find a marketplace in Europe, but given that Rothamsted is spending public money on this trial shouldn’t the ‘public good’ aspect the trial be much more transparent and open for more debate? (for those interested Rothamsted has produced an 11-page Q&A on the trials)
This is not the only trial of GMOs currently at Rothamsted. Although many consumers are not aware of it, there is still also an ongoing field trail of oilseed GM camelina which was planted in 2014.
Also, given the thrust of the UK government’s agritech strategy, we can expect more applications for GM trials in the UK from 2017 onwards.
This week the news also came through that the EU Commission and pro-GMO Member States are trying to push through approvals for two new GM insecticidal maize varieties – Pioneer’s 1507 and Syngenta’s Bt11 – as well as the reauthorisation of MON810 maize.
Application for the authorisation of 1507 and Bt11 have been ongoing for many years (since 2001 and 2003 respectively). MON810 was originally approved for cultivation in the EU in 1998 and is currently grown in Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. It has been awaiting reapproval since 2007.
In October 2015 under new EU ‘opt out’ rules many, but not all, Member States opted out of cultivating several GM crops including these three maize varieties.
All three crops have all been engineered to produce certain toxins, which are derived from those produced by a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The Bt toxins are meant to kill the larvae of specific insect pests, such as the European corn borer, but have been shown to harm non-target insects as well.
In addition, 1507 and Bt11, are also genetically modified to withstand spraying with glufosinate.
Several MEPs oppose the authorisation. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is responsible for assessing the health and environmental impacts of new GM crops, has already given the green light to 1507 and Bt11. This is in spite of campaigners’ insistence that there are significant gaps in data regarding its safety for humans and the environment.
The proposed authorisations would be valid in 9 out of 28 EU countries, as well as in three regions (England in the UK, Flanders and the Brussels region in Belgium). If approved, these would be the first new GM crops legally authorised for cultivation in the EU in almost 20 years.
Whether these countries would actually go on to grow these maize varieties or whether this is a test of the new EU opt out/opt in procedures is unclear.
Also unclear is the real motivation behind the recent announcement by Germany that it was drafting legislation to totally ban GMOs. This draft legislation runs completely counter to current EU legislation (and is thus open to challenge) which requires that countries/regions opt in or out of GMO cultivation on case by case basis. Again, this could be a way of testing strengths and weaknesses in current EU legislation.
The Commission is likely to decide on the issue of the three GM maize varieties before the end of the year.
There may be no market for GM wheat, or even large scale cultivation of GM maize, but the potential for a GM potato to catch on is a genuine concern. Potatoes are a staple food in many EU states and we have been watching the development of GM potato varieties closely.
In the last week, the US Department of Agriculture has approved commercial planting of two types of GM potatoes, engineered to be blight resistant.
Idaho-based JR Simplot’s Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties have also been engineered to reduce bruising and black spots, enhanced storage capacity and to have a reduced amount of acrylamide, a carcinogenic substance created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.
The new GM potato varieties are not yet ready for market. They must next clear a voluntary review process through the Food and Drug Administration as well as approval by the US Environmental Protection Agency. These approvals are expected in January with the potatoes entering the market next spring.
A GM potato with the same traits, the Russet Burbank, has already been granted approval from the USDA and FDA, with EPA approval also expected in January.
Should the GM potato come to the EU it will be potentially much harder for regulators – even in so-called ‘opted-out’ countries – to argue against it. There is likely to be fierce debate on the topic and consumer engagement and pressure will be more important than ever if we want to keep them out of the UK and the rest of Europe.
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