Joint EPTA* Project on «Genetically modified plants and foods»
What are genetically modified plants and foods?
The first genetically modified organism was produced in the seventies. In the last three decades, great progress was made in modern biotechnology. In the year 2005, the estimated global area of genetically modified (GM) (or transgenic) crops was around 90 million hectares. GM crops were grown in 17 countries. Leader is the USA, with 49.8 million hectares (55% of total). The most important GM crop was soybeans with 54.4 million hectares (60% of global GM area). In contrast to this development, the cultivation of GM crops in Europe is very limited. In the year 1999, a moratorium on GM crops was de facto introduced in the European Union, which was in force until 2004.
Opportunities and risks of genetically modified plants and foods
Biotechnology, and especially genetic engineering, is one of the most controversially discussed modern technologies. This technology is seen on the one hand as an important key to economic competitiveness and growth, and on the other arouses concerns about health and safety issues and about ecological impacts.
The new European Directive on deliberate releases (2001/18/EC) and the following EU regulations have put into force a new framwork for GM crops and foods in the EU, including an emphasis on the precautionary principle, an enforced risk assessment, a time limit for authorizations, an introduction of follow-up evaluations and a change in the labelling regime.
At the same time, a new generation of GM crops, capable of producing medicine, industrial chemicals, etc. is emerging. This development leads to new questions for risk assessment and regulation, and for the discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of these new GM crops.
Why conduct an EPTA project on genetically modified plants and foods?
Many citizens in the European Union and in Switzerland are opposed to or sceptical about GM food. In the past fifteen years, heated debates about genetically modified plants and food have taken place in many European countries. These debates have common characteristics and national specificities.
Many projects of European technology assessment (TA) institutions have reviewed and contributed to these debates. They used different approaches, such as consensus conferences or scientific assessments. GM crops and foods are a major topic for the European Network of institution for Technology Assessment (EPTA Network).
Aims of the study
The project should provide information on:
- Regulatory challenges for the European system in the next years
- public debate in the future
- Approaches for technology assessment to handle future issues
The project focuses on GM plants and their use as feed and food, but also includes new applications such as plant-made pharmaceuticals or plant-made industrials products. GM animals are not included.
* EPTA = European Parliamentary Technology Assessment Network
Results of the study
All in all, the final report points out that the regulatory system for GM plants and food in Europe does not seem to be fully prepared to meet all existing and foreseeable future challenges. Five key areas of challenges for the European system of GMO regulation in the years to come were identified, as were a number of possible approaches for future technology assessment activities.
- The future of GM plants and food in Europe depends on the type of sustainable agriculture developed in Europe in the light of different, and sometimes conflicting, sustainability goals. A broad societal dialogue on future sustainable European agriculture in a global context is therefore needed in order to determine the future role of GM plants and food.
- Crop development may again come to the forefront of public research. To make good use of any money that becomes available in this context, it would be necessary to assess not only the technical performance of newly developed plants but also the chances of these plants to meet societal goals.
- Non-food GM plants might require an ongoing revision of the regulatory framework . This pertains to parameters for risk assessment and management, confinement, coexistence and liability, as well as to the question of including benefit evaluation. While it is possible that public perception will change as new consumer-oriented GM products become available, this cannot be taken for granted. Since public attitudes are influenced by many factors, including ethical concerns, consumer protection policy is not the only field of relevance. A variety of other areas, from agricultural policy to GM regulation, are also significant. An early discussion and open dialogue concerning the potential opportunities and possible problems can help to prevent disappointment on either side. Meeting the expectations regarding the high quality of information remains a major challenge.
- Doubts as to whether coexistence will work may pertain to particular items of regulation on the assessment and management of GM plants; however, they could also be taken as an indication that the expertise involved or elements of the authorisation process are at stake. In particular, independence from the vested interests of authorities involved could be better demonstrated by incorporating a broader spectrum of scientific opinions and/or representation of interests. Regarding authorisation, a recurrent problem seems to be the proper disentanglement of science and policy. The requirements for scientific evidence,
on the one hand, and room for manoeuvre in politics, on the other, do not seem to be sufficiently defined. Likewise, a defined remit for political decision-making at the national level would be desirable, for example in order to restrict, or promote, the use of GM plants.
- The recent WTO* conflict highlights the need to reconcile different international agreements in order not to thwart the aims of these agreements. Therefore, not only areas specific for GM organisms (GMOs) might be considered to be at stake, but also the possible integration of environmental and social standards into WTO regulations. Many of the problems encountered at WTO level are said to have derived from different interpretations by member states of the EU regulatory framework. Possible solutions would be to give more leeway to national sovereignty (subsidiarity) or to increase harmonisation among Member States. A large number of experts seem to consider further harmonisation and a reform of competent authorities/institutions an option for further improving the robustness of the EU regulatory system.
*WTO = World Trade Organization
Reviews of reports from EPTA member organisations on various aspects of GM plant application, their regulation and associated problems yielded a list of developments and consequently possible challenges to European policy on GM plants. Resulting from this list of challenges, a questionnaire was developed, and 183 experts involved in the development, assessment and regulation of GM plants in Europe were invited to respond. These experts, 71 of whom completed the questionnaire, came from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The questionnaire results and the experts’ comments were analysed in the light of the results of the EPTA members’ reports.
Project start: October 2006 | completion: summer 2009
- Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag - TAB
- Danish Board of Technology
- Austrian Institute of Technology Assessment – ITA
- British Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology – POST
- Flemish Institute for Science and Technology - IST
- Scientific Technology Options Assessment (STOA – European Parliament)
- Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS
TA-SWISS Project Supervisors
- Dr Danielle Bütschi, TA-SWISS, e-mail
- Dr Rolf Meyer, TAB, e-mail
- Dr Danielle Bütschi, TA-SWISS
- Peter Border, POST
- Jarka Chloupkova, STOA – European Parliament
- Els van den Cruyce, Flemish Institute for Science and Technology IST
- Soren Gram, Danish Board of Technology
- Armin Grunwald, TAB
- Rolf Meyer, TAB
- Arnold Sauter, TAB
- Stef Steyaert, Flemish Institute for Science and Technology IST
- Helge Torgersen, ITA
- Willy Weyns, Flemish Institute for Science and Technology IST
CH-3011 Bern T + 41 31 310 99 60
F + 41 31 310 99 61
The project in brief
New applications for genetically modified plants outside the field of nutrition will be with us very soon, for instance plants that produce medicinal active substances or other active substances used in the production of biofuels. This could mean changes in the debate on their benefits and risks. TA-SWISS participated in a European review study which points out challenges for the future.
Timetable: project completed (2009)
Project mandataries: EPTA (European Parliamentary Technology Assessment)