The European Union (EU) is still debating whether it should embrace genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But a group of European life scientists are determined to welcome China's GM rice.
At a one-day food meeting, sponsored by the European Action on Global Life Sciences (EAGLELS) in Brussels last week, the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) task group sent out a clear message that backed biotechnologists in China and other countries working on transgenic agriculture technology to ensure food security across the world.
Yet the controversy over GMOs, particularly the "over-strict regulatory framework" on GM food as Mark Cantley of Britain put it "has been disastrous for the progress of agricultural biotechnology" not only in Europe, but also elsewhere.
"It has created difficulties for all the countries seeking to trade with the EU," said Cantley, former adviser to the Directorate for Life Sciences (Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food) under the Research Directorate-General of the European Commission.
An African farmer checks a genetically modified corn. Courtesy of Jennifer Thompson
Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Jennifer Thompson echoed his concern. She and her colleagues have come up with several varieties of transgenic corn that show encouraging traits of resisting the virus streak endemic in Africa and could survive even during drought. But they couldn't get a commercial license for the plant despite its popularity among farmers involved in the field trials.
"It's all because of EU's strict rules against GM food, for much of our corn is exported to Europe," Thompson said. The positive results of safety tests could not convince the local government, she said, because the officials are prone to thinking that "if Europe doesn't want it, there must be something wrong with it".
President of the China Agricultural University Chen Zhangliang informed the meeting that similar misgivings had withheld the commercialization of GM rice on the Chinese mainland. This despite the Ministry of Agriculture's biosafety committee giving its nod in November 2004 to the production of a GM rice strain that resists leaf blight. Leaf blight is a fungus that attacks rice, beans, cotton, tomato, pepper, plantain, and many other secondary host crops. Perhaps the worse blight attack was on potatoes, Ireland's staple food, in 1845-46.
Chen said: "We're still awaiting the final approval of a commission, comprising (representatives of) seven ministries of the central government Our ministers are hesitating primarily because of EU's objection to GM plants."
Speaking on EU's stance on GMOs at a public debate before the EAGLES meeting, Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard said that rules were imposed only for labeling, shipment and tracing of GM food.
Biologists, however, see the regulations as an obstacle against the spread of transgenic agriculture, particularly hurting small-scale farmers. "The regulations often prolong the process of approval that only multinationals can afford," said David McConnell, of Trinity College's Smurfit Institute of Genetics, University of Dublin, Ireland.
This contradicts the GMO opponents' allegation that multinationals want to use GM plants to control the world food chain, and the efforts to keep an area GM-free are to prevent their monopoly.
Most biotechnologists back GMOs, with the opposition coming mainly from environmental scientists and organizations, McConnell said. He recalled with bitterness the failure of a GM potato trial in his country: On May 9, 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland authorized three-year field trials of a potato strain, genetically engineered to be resistant to blight that caused the 1845-46 famine.
"One million people died of starvation during the famine," he said. "Another 1 million emigrated to the US, Australia and elsewhere. As a result, our population has shrank from 8 million in 1844 to 6 million today." Ireland is perhaps the only country where the population has dropped in the past century and a half. "And blight threatens our potato production even today."
The GM potato to go on trial would have transferred a blight-immune gene found in a wild potato strain of Mexico, he said. It's the only solution to the disease. "Yet environmentalists blocked the trial." According to the Irish Times, a nationwide opposition campaign involving more than 100 food and farming groups objected to the trial through the media and written statements. The result: the county council of Meath, where the trial was to be carried out, declared its area a GM-free zone.
Some 172 regions and provinces in the EU have declared themselves GM-free, according to People Earth Decade, a UK-based environmental organization. And McConnell, Cantley and other biotechnologists can't understand the phobia against GMOs.
"The living world is one large gene-pool of functional and pseudogenes," said Marc Van Montagu, Emeritus Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Genetics at the University of Gent, Belgium. "This gene-pool is permanently evolving, which is the base of evolution."
Well known as an inventor of Agrobacterium tumefaciens (a soil plant pathogenic bacterium) transformation technology, now used worldwide to produce genetically engineered plants, Van Montagu said: "Nature is one big gene laboratory", and a "gene revolution" will help bridge existing grain yield gaps, reduce environmental impact of chemicals and increase the nutritional elements in food.
Despite Van Montagu's confidence that "21st century plants will be GM plants," it seems he and his colleagues have to find a way to balance the environmentalists' influence both on the public and the politicians.
As Thompson says, even if GM crops could help feed hungry people, "transgenic food plants cannot be the magic wand to feed the entire developing world", because efforts have to be made to improve infrastructure, educate people and, more importantly, "end wars and corruption" in some regions.
GMOs are neither black nor white, said Hedegaard at the public debate organized by the Friends of Europe before the EAGLES meeting. "We should move away from the more religious way of handling this debate on GMOs."
GM crops are being grown on more than 1 million hectares around the world, she said, suggesting the EU look at how it could help ensure food security in the developing world and promote a more ethical GMO industry than the one run by US biotech giants.
And till that is done, the fear of losing livelihood and becoming dependent on multinationals for their food supply will keep haunting the small farmers across the world.
(China Daily 03/01/2007)