EU agency: GM soy is safe
The European Food Safety Authority EFSA has finished its appraisal of a genetically modified (GM) soy variety from agricultural corporation Monsanto that could well be cultivated in Europe in the future. For the first time, the Italy-based office has issued a positive opinion for the plant, publishing its results in the EFSA Journal (2012, Vol 10, p. 2753). This is a first step towards general approval. The final decision will be made by the EU Member States or the EU Commission. However, it remains debatable as to whether German farmers will ever cultivate GM soy on a broad scale.
Soy is one of the most globally important food crops. A total of 261 million tonnes were harvested in 2010, and total acreage was over 102 million hectares. The largest producers are the United States, Brazil and Argentina, who grow almost exclusively GM varieties. The share of the total GM acreage in the United States is 94 percent (2011), 97 percent in Argentina (figures from 2009) and 77 percent in Brazil (2010). By contrast, no genetically modified soy has been grown in the European Union to date, although large quantities of oilseeds are imported every year, primarily as animal feed.
Soybean varieties with herbicide tolerance
In 2005, the US agricultural corporation Monsanto applied in the Netherlands for European cultivation approval for a specific soybean, also as a foodstuff. The variety – denomination 40-3-2 – contains extra genetic information that enables resistance to the pesticide glyphosate. The variety was approved in the US in 1994, in Argentina in 1996, and in Brazil in 2005. GM soy was grown in Romania until EU accession in 2007. The broadband herbicide glyphosate, which disrupts the synthesis of defined amino acids, and is toxic to most plants, is marketed under the name 'Roundup'. To complement its other product, the US corporate group has developed seeds that are insensitive to the herbicide – so-called 'Roundup Ready' varieties. In addition to soy, thanks to artificially inserted genetic information, there are also rapeseed, cotton and corn varieties that are resistant to the substance.
The EFSA Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms has now given a positive assessment of the Monsanto soybeans. In the official opinion, the scientific committee nevertheless urges that cultivation of the variety must provide a measure of environmental relief. Accordingly, the EFSA has decreed that quantities of applied pesticide should undergo monitoring, and what is more, that: "We also recommend the monitoring of changes in the herb and shrub biodiversity and the evolution of pesticide resistance in these plants."
The 27 EU Member States must now make a decision on the basis of the EFSA recommendation. In the past, further progress has frequently been halted by disagreements between proponents and opponents of GM approvals, with no factions managing to win enough votes for their respective positions. In such cases, it is up to the EU Commission to come to a decision. They must carry out the task according to legislation, and as laid out in the EU treaties: GM products can be approved if they have been proven as safe according to current scientific standards, and if all other legal requirements are maintained during application.
Criticism of the EFSA opinion
Not unexpectedly, there has been strong criticism within Germany of the EFSA opinion. A report commissioned by the generally GM-critical 'Beratungsinstitut Testbiotech' has concluded that the risk assessment for 'Roundup Ready' soy is incomplete: "The pesticide residues on the soybean plants can be harmful to health, and there is no monitoring envisaged for this specific aspect." According to Testbiotech, EU rules stipulate this kind of monitoring. "If the approval of genetically modified soy is granted on the basis of the existing risk assessment, this would be a legal violation," said Testbiotech head Christoph Then. EU legal expert Ludwig Krämer also indicated in the commissioned legal opinions that the cultivation risks have not been sufficiently clarified.
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Regardless of the outcome of the procedure, it is unlikely that German farmers will cultivate soy on a broad-scale in the future; not least, the general climate conditions do not allow optimal yields. According to the information portal Proplanta, suitable conditions can only be found at some locations in southern Germany. Just 4,000 acres of soy plants were cultivated in Germany in 2010, reports the soy promotion organisation Deutsche Sojaförderring. In recent years, the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) has also funded a research programme with the objective of expanding environmental soybean cultivation in the traditional growing areas in South Germany.
Biologist association calls for substantive debate
Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner is on the whole critical of green genetic engineering; among other moves she has refused EU plans to raise the zero tolerance thresholds for GM traces in foodstuffs. Also for this reason, the EFSA’s most recent decision will have fuelled the current debate surrounding genetically modified seeds. In mid-June, the Association of Biology, Biosciences and Biomedicine in Germany (VBIO) called for the debate on agricultural biotechnology to be pursued on the basis of knowledge-based arguments. Association president Wolfgang Nellen emphasised that evidence of the risks has been available for nearly two decades: "Research results are frequently ignored and contradictions hidden, and – consciously and unconsciously – false lines of reasoning are constructed." The association criticised above all the requirement of zero tolerance for foodstuffs and the designation of 'GM-free zones'. Instead, citizens should be given the opportunity to "make decisions based on knowledge and not on 'perceived truths'."