The cost and complexity of the EU regulatory system for GM crops, along with the lack of evidence of harm to people or the environment, is generating pressure to make regulatory systems more risk-based and to take potential benefits into account, claim the researchers, who are based at the University of Edinburgh and Warwick University in the UK.
However, in Europe and other parts of the world, they stress, lobbyists and individuals with an anti-GM agenda retain considerable influence with policy makers.
“The interaction between the governance-based approach and the precautionary principle has exposed decision-making on the regulation of GM crops to influences from politically motivated parties more than ever before,” claim the authors, who said they are drawing down on ten years of evidence.
And the authors comment that as a result of the lobbying by anti-GMO groups, there has been greater restriction of plant biotechnology in Europe than in other parts of the world, “despite a lack of evidence for any direct risks from the wide-scale adoption of GM crop technology.”
Their findings, published in EMBO Reports, were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Evidence-based system urged
Professor Joyce Tait of the University of Edinburgh's ESRC Innogen Centre, one of the authors, said: "At a time when an increasing number of people are living in hunger and climate change threatens crops, the system that regulates GM food sources ought to become more based on evidence and less subject to the influence of politically motivated NGOs."
From surveys to focus groups to citizen juries, GM crops have probably been engaged with more than any other technology, but this has not helped to build societal consensus in Europe, she claims.
Tait and her team cite the case of the French Agrimonde report, published in 2009, as indicative of the power of advocacy to influence European decision-making on GM crops, claiming that immediately after the publication of the report, it seemed likely that France would adopt a more liberal approach to GM crops.
Giving further weight to this premise, the authors report the views of Marion Guillou, CEO of the French national institute for agricultural research (INRA), at the time. When asked about the role of biotechnology in food production, the INRA head cautiously referred to the need for new genetically selected varieties, either produced by GM or traditional breeding techniques.
At that stage she "supported case-by-case scrutiny of GMOs, acknowledging that for some GMOs assessments are undisputedly positive, particularly modifications that provide insect resistance and allow a reduction in pesticide use,” said the researchers.
However, report Tait and her team, INRA has since announced that it does not intend to make GM plant varieties available for sale in France. They reference Guillou's statement on this: “We have no research on GMO innovation anymore, none. […] Since European society does not want to buy GMOs, we had better focus on other technology.”
Developing market impact
The researchers also found that some developing countries resist GM crops, even though they might benefit from the reduced crop losses and increased yields of GM technology, because they would not find a ready market in Europe.
And the authors report that it is has proven challenging to collect evidence of benefits or risks, given the routine destruction of GM-crop field trials by NGOs opposed to the use of the technology. “It is difficult to develop new GM products that could be beneficial for the environment or contribute to food security when there is a lack of funding for basic research and development to produce such products,” they note.
Source: EMBO reports
Published online ahead of print: doi:10.1038/embor.2011.135
Title: Global food security and the governance of modern biotechnologies
Authors: J. Tait, G. Barker