EU farmers losing out in biotech revolution

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, Europe, United kingdom, Eu

European farmers are lagging behind the rest of the world in terms
of access to agricultural biotechnology, according to the president
of the European Federation of Biotechnology.

Marc Van Montagu, a well-known plant biotech pioneer, told journalists in Brussels this week that the technology, which has been oriented to helping developing countries, could also be of great benefit to European food production.

"Fighting the vicious circle of hunger and poverty is the most urgent task that faces our society, and will require a reformulation of current models of agriculture,"​ he said.

But he also stressed that the technology has considerable benefits for Europe, despite what he described as "systematic attempts to deny European farmers the right to use a technology widely used in the rest of the world"​.

Montagu's comments follow the publication of new figures from The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The new statistics show that in 2006 the number of hectares globally cultivated with GM crops increased by 12 million hectares. Most of this growth came from countries such as China and India, while most EU farmers "continue to be held back by a dysfunctional regulatory system and by disproportionate co-existence rules,"​ according to Montagu.

The issue of GM approval within the EU is one of the most contentious in agriculture. The recent announcement that US authorities had traced amounts of unapproved genetically modified (GM) food in samples of rice prompted the EU to clamp down on all imports from the US.

The immediacy of this action illustrated the stringent controls the EU has in place to guard against unauthorised products entering the food chain, and also reflected consumer fears over the technology.

These fears appear to be concentrated in Europe. According to ISAAA, interest in and acceptance of biotechnology is rapidly increasing as countries become "increasingly convinced of its benefits on an environmental and economic level"​.

As a result, most growth in biotechnology during the next ten years is expected to occur in key developing countries of Asia, led by China and India, as well as in Pakistan and Vietnam.

But growth also continues in Europe, where Slovakia became the sixth EU country out of 25 to plant biotech crops. Spain continues to lead the continent, planting 60,000 hectares in 2006; however, the other five EU countries reported a five-fold increase in plantings from 1,500 hectares in 2005 to about 8,500 hectares in 2006, said ISAAA.

Montagu however is convinced that in Europe too often the GM debate "centres on emotional arguments, rather than looking at scientific positives."

As a result he believes that, despite increasing uptake, EU countries are missing out on the benefits offered by biotech crops. Hungary for example has refused to lift its ban on GM maize.

Related topics: Cereals and bakery preparations

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