Euro Exim Bank

Interview with Nathalie Moll, Secretary General at EuropaBio, the European Association of BioIndustries


1. What is the current situation of GMOs in Europe?

While there is relatively little cultivation of genetically modified crops in the EU, GMOs are already part of our daily lives. The EU is a major importer of genetically modified (GM) commodities from other parts of the world. Most of the world’s cotton is GM – Europeans wear it daily and often pay with biotech banknotes. We also use imported GM soybeans to feed our farm animals, something European livestock farmers depend on heavily since there is no realistic alternative.

2. So we don’t grow it but we import what other continents produce – why?

The EU is the largest importer of agricultural commodities in the world. In some cases it depends on the climate e.g. we can’t grow coffee in Europe. In the case of GM crops, EU farmers can’t grow them because they are not allowed to – despite the fact that these crops have been proven over and over again to be as safe as conventional crops and that competing farmers in other parts of the world are growing them and exporting the results to Europe.

3. How does the EU regulate GMOs?

It’s a strict pre-market authorization system, both for cultivation and imports. There is a thorough safety assessment for each GM crop, followed by a political process involving the European Commission and Member States. In practice, the system is currently dysfunctional for imports and has always been dysfunctional for cultivation. The European Commission and several Member States have lost court cases for not respecting binding EU law.

4. The EU does not obey its own laws?

Unfortunately it regularly fails to do so. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2013 that “the European Commission has failed to fulfil its obligations” in the GM authorization process, and the Commission admits on the record that it regularly misses the deadlines for putting safety assessed GM crops to the vote by Member States. On top of this, the WTO has condemned the EU for not respecting its international obligations in this area.

5. What’s the impact of this?

There have already been major trade disruptions in the past regarding GM imports, where shipments of commodities were rejected at EU ports due to the presence of GMOs not yet approved in the EU. The EU Commission estimated that the cost of these unnecessary trade disruptions could amount to 9.6 billion € per year, which is close to 20 € per citizen. The Commission also estimated the result of the EU being cut off from GM imports: essentially we would have to import meat instead of animal feed, and the EU’s livestock farming sector would be severely reduced. Additional problems are getting likelier every day now.

6. Why do you say these problems are getting likelier?

Although 48 GM crops are already approved for import into the EU, the European Commission has put import authorisations on hold since November 2013, despite confirmation from the European Food Safety Agency that these products are as safe as conventional crops. 13 products are currently waiting for a green light from the Commission. Meanwhile, farmers outside Europe grow new products where they are allowed to, and these products can always end up as traces in commodity imports, given that agriculture can never guarantee 100% purity. The EU expects its trading partners to justify any barriers to trade objectively, but there is no objective explanation for this trade barrier.

7. Will the recent EU agreement on GM cultivation change anything?

Unfortunately, European policy-making keeps confirming Europe’s direction towards becoming a museum of world farming. In March 2015, the EU adopted legislation allowing Member States to ban safe GM products approved at EU level, based on non-scientific grounds. Let’s be clear that this does not change the EU authorization system itself, and it does not change the Commission’s legal obligation to put safety assessed products to the vote. And by the way, only 7 product applications remain in the system for cultivation, several having been withdrawn by companies after more than 10 years waiting in the system. This non-cultivation legislation is a STOP sign for innovation and sets a very bad precedent for the internal market. This negative precedent of “politics over science” represents one of the biggest investment disincentives for high-tech sectors.

8. Politics over science?

Yes. Someone once said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. The objective fact is that all the GM crops currently on the market are at least as safe as conventional crops. If politics stops or unduly delays the approval of these crops even for import, then politics trumps science. There is a place in politics for ethical and many other considerations. But when you have a democratically agreed system for product approvals in place that intends to guarantee product safety, and when it then turns out that products do not get approved despite undoubted safety, then this is a problem not just for GMOs, but for all innovative industries. If a political decision about a safe product is taken, it needs to be clearly communicated that it is a decision based solely on political considerations, in order to avoid creating consumer mistrust in science.

On top of that, much of the research has already been driven out of Europe. One indicator is the number of GM field trials, which have fallen from 109 in 2009 to 10 in 2014. Most research that remains in Europe in this field is focused on products for farmers outside the EU. There is still some laudable public GM research going on in parts of Europe, but even public researchers and public institutions face protests and illegal destructions of field trials; in 2014 radical activists invaded the European Food Safety Authority with smoke bombs. German Nobel Prize laureate prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard said in March 2015 that most of the plant biotech students in Germany will have to emigrate to find jobs.

9. How could it come this far?

Many politicians seem to have abdicated from their role of leaders in favour of becoming followers of public opinion voiced by scaremongers. However, voting against or otherwise blocking or delaying the authorization of safe products, without explaining the political decisions behind doing so, just reinforces public concerns about the scientific assessment of those products, as will efforts to create policy based facts rather than fact based policies. The EU is in an invidious circle of a lack of approvals and decreased trust: no vote – no trust, no trust – no vote.

10. Won’t politicians always give priority to public opinion?

It is a rather small and vocal minority which is really opposed. Indeed, public perception is gradually improving, especially where media reduce their pickup of unfounded scaremongering and where politicians dare tell the truth: genetic modification has caused no harm whatsoever and is simply a targeted tool to improve plants, which have in turn helped farmers grow more and more sustainably to feed the growing world population. In March 2015, a British charity stopped its scaremongering in Africa.

11. What should be next for Europe then?

Decision makers can and should get out of this vicious circle. What is needed now is political leadership that stands up for the scientific objective truth and helps inform the public. GM crops like the ones in question are (at least) as safe as conventional crops. Decision makers who continue to cast this into doubt should explain why they trust unfounded scaremongering more than the verdicts of renowned organizations including the European Academies of Science, the European Food Safety Authority, the World Health Organisation, and the European Commission.

As one of its priorities, the EU Commission is reviewing the authorization system for GMOs as we speak. The system is not being applied correctly and therefore, the logical way to fix it would simply be to start the authorisation system again. That is why I hope that 2015 will mark a shift towards coherent and science-based policy-making. And that is what I strongly recommend.

The most obvious and easy generator of innovation, jobs and growth is to approve safe new products in reasonable timelines, ensuring consumer safety while giving industry the predictability it requires to operate.

EuropaBio is the European Association of BioIndustries. Our members are involved in research, development, testing, manufacturing and commercialisation of biotech products and processes in human and animal healthcare, diagnostics, bioinformatics, chemicals, crop protection, agriculture, food and environmental products and services. EuropaBio also counts a number of National Biotech Associations in its membership who in turn represent more than 1800 biotech SMEs.