Green Biotechnology

Is there a future for genetic modification in European agriculture? Despite numerous scientific risk studies, interdisciplinary problem analyses and citizen participation procedures in many countries, the question remains unanswered. That makes taking concrete political decisions difficult.

Time and time again, difficulties keep arising with the licensing of genetically modified (GM) plants. At first sight, the question is that of the possible risks; however, the political problems are due to the fact that the member states do not agree whether green genetic engineering is at all desirable. After almost three decades of scientific investigations and detailed Community rules, it still appears impossible to take decisions.

Consumers reject genetically manipulated products

In the meantime, a generation of GM plants with new properties is ready for licensing. At the same time, climate change and the demand for energy plants are changing the conditions for agriculture. The problem is intricate: many consumers refuse to buy genetically modified food, while Industry, research and some policy-makers think that Europe will fall behind technologically. At the same time, citizens are demanding more transparency and governments to take account of their wishes. So what should be done if many citizens do not want what policymakers see as indispensable?

What follows licensing?

As opinion polls such as the Eurobarometer (link LSES and STEPE) have shown, public attitude towards GM crop plants has remained sceptical. This could, however, change in the long term if consumers perceived direct benefits from these crops. If larger quantities of them were cultivated, the next problems to be solved would be under what conditions they could coexist alongside conventional plants and how the products should be labelled. Existing concepts might be insufficient (link EPTA project). For instance, coexistence might not be possible for every GM crop variety under all conditions.

National decisions in conflict with world trade

The fact that each EU member state can decide for itself whether GM plants can be grown has also led to problems. The rules of international trade are very strict on this matter. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) insists that the EU should treat genetically modified varieties in the same way as conventional plants unless there is proof of a risk. This has in the past caused problems for a number of member states with restrictive policies such as Austria.

The future of agricultural biotechnology in Europe however depends on more than regulations, new technical solutions, market requirements or changes in public opinion. It also depends on the concrete requirements for a sustainable agriculture. If it is not clear what the functions of European agriculture are to be in the future, the role of individual technologies will also remain vague. Within the framework of the EPTA project, the ITA looked at questions of sustainable agriculture.

The approval of GM crops remains a controversial topic for EU member states