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GM crops in Europe

Saroja Coelho, Anne-Sophie BrändlinNovember 6, 2013

Europe inched closer to the cultivation of a new breed of genetically modified corn. The move comes after more than a decade of debate and considerable opposition from environmentalists.

Ear of corn against a field under clouds© smereka Autor smerekaPortfolio ansehen Bildnummer 44039832
Image: Fotolia/smereka

The European Commission presented EU member states with a proposal for the cultivation of a new breed of genetically modified (GM) corn on Wednesday. Unless a majority of EU governments reject the proposal, approval for the planting of maize 1507 will be granted within the year.

The corn variety 1507 was developed by Pioneer DuPont and applications for EU approval were submitted in 2001. The Commission passed it from committee to committee without reaching a clear decision, finally prompting DuPoint to file an official complaint. In September, Europe's second highest court found the Commission guilty of breaching EU law and delaying the decision-making process on insect-resistant maize.

Insect-resistant corn

Corn 1507 is both insect resistant and herbicide tolerant. The crop produces a pesticide toxin and is able to withstand intensive spraying with an herbicide known as glufosinate ammonium. According to DuPont's communication manager Jozsef Mate, this genetically modified crop is the key to securing larger annual yields.

"The product represents a solution in countries where insects are a problem for farmers, like in Spain," Mate told DW. "The loss for the farmers can be very severe. There are fields where 100 percent of the crop was destroyed by corn borer."

A farmer holds up four corncobs - organic corncob that has been attacked by insects (left) and genetically modified insect resistant corn cob (right)
The organic cobs on the left have suffered insect damage, but are the GM cobs on the right safe to eat?Image: picture-alliance/AP

He added that the modified corn had been through seven safety reviews by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). "All of them are positive and say that the product is safe and doesn't represent any problems for humans, animals or the environment," Mate said.

Greenpeace: no scientific consensus

But environment advocacy group Greenpeace called the EFSA assessment "woefully inadequate" and accused its expert committee of failing to acknowledge uncertainty in the data. Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero told DW that there remains no scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified crops.

"The technology is prone to have an unintended and unpredictable impact," he said. "Because the technology behind it is crude. We know how to randomly insert up to four genes into the genome of a plant, but we don't know how they're going to impact the genome of that plant."

A girl holds up a sign during a protest against U.S.-based Monsanto Co. and genetically modified organisms (GMO), in New York May 25, 2013. Monsanto Co., the world's largest seed company, is pushing on with plans to introduce a controversial new type of herbicide-tolerant crop, setting up 20 field locations around the United States to test and market its "Xtend" soybean product. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (UNITED STATES - Tags: AGRICULTURE FOOD POLITICS CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS)
There have been protests against genetically modified organisms (GMO) around the worldImage: Reuters

Contiero said genetic modification can result in the development of pieces of DNA within the genome that have no clear, known purpose. He said there is insufficient data available about how these portions of the genome - sometimes called "junk DNA" - may affect the plants and the humans who eat them.

"We simply know too little about possible effects," Contiero said. "There has been no study on impacts of GM crops on human beings, whether they are short term, middle term or long term impacts."

Farmers divided

The introduction of corn 1507 has faced sharp opposition from France, Austria and Poland, but is quickly gaining support in Britain, Spain and Sweden. According to a survey conducted by Farmers Weekly earlier this year, more than 60 percent of British farmers would grow GM crops if it were legal to do so.

"Currently GM crops are safety tested more than any other crops," Sian Davis, an adviser with the National Farmers Union of the United Kingdom, told DW. "If farmers in Spain or Portugal want to grow crops then the only answer they have is to use a GM variety."

Symbolbild: Extrem diversifiziertes Warenangebot in Deutschland ARCHIV - Ein Kunde steht am 13.02.2012 in Köln vor einem Supermarktregal. Foto: Oliver Berg/dpa (zu dpa «Kartellamt besorgt über Konzentration im Lebensmittelhandel» vom 01.06.2013) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
DuPont argues that GM crops are imported and sold in European supermarketsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

DuPont's Mate added that farmers should be able to make more choices about their crops. "If the farmer wants organic seed, he should go for it, if he wants commercial seeds or biotech seeds - that should be OK as well."

Mate also pointed out that GM crops which are banned from European fields are being imported from other countries. "That's neither competitive, nor logical or rational," he said.

EU governments will vote on the Commission's proposal in December.