GM potato stirs opposition in Europe (25/7/2007)

EXTRACTS: "You would think that this approval would have been easy... But it didn't turn out that way." - Ralf-Michael Schmidt, vice president of BASF

Polls by the European Commission have shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of Europeans distrust genetically modified plants


A Genetically Modified Potato, Not for Eating, Is Stirring Some Opposition in Europe
Elisabeth Rosenthal New York Times, July 24 2007

Limburgerhof, Germany - When Timo Bohme, a plant scientist, pulls up the cluster of dirt-encrusted potatoes from a tidy field here, he cradles them like a precious baby. For his employer, the German chemical giant BASF, these unassuming golden orbs, called Amflora potatoes, are the culmination of nearly 20 years of research and hold the promise of immense future profits. But not just yet.

Amflora potatoes, likely to become the first genetically modified crop in the last decade to be approved for growth in Europe, have become the unlikely lightning rod in the angry debate over such products on the Continent.

The European Commission now says it will approve the potato "probably this fall," even though European ministers have twice been deadlocked on approval over the last eight months, with only a minority voting in favor. According to European Union procedures, "the ministers have not been able to take a decision, so we will have to reaffirm our earlier opinion to recommend it," said Barbara Helferrich, spokeswoman for the European Commission's Environment Directorate.

But European environmental groups are critical of Amflora potatoes, saying they could release dangerous genes into the environment. Approving Amflora would make "a mockery of E.U. law," said Marco Contiero, an expert on genetically modified organisms at Greenpeace in Brussels.

Still, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Amflora is the visceral popular reaction against genetically modified crops on a continent whose food culture is ancient and treasured.

"I just don't like the idea," said Monika Stahl, 31, waiting for a bus with a sack of fresh vegetables in Mannheim, just 12 miles from the Amflora field. "I worry about safe food and about the environment. I have children and worry about them."

In one sense, the irony is that Amflora is not a food at all. Although it looks, feels and smells like any other potato, each one is actually a genetically engineered factory for amylopectin, a starch used to make glossy paper coatings, clothing finishes and adhesive cement.

Normal potatoes combine amylopectin and amylose; the gene for amylose is turned off in Amflora potatoes, which taste terrible, and will never be turned into French fries or a potato salad.

"You would think that this approval would have been easy since this potato has no seeds, no wild relatives to cross with in Europe, and only industrial use," said Ralf-Michael Schmidt, vice president of BASF. "But it didn't turn out that way."

Only 1 percent of the world's genetically modified food is grown in Europe. In contrast, 55 percent of the world’s acreage in genetically modified crops is in the United States. From 1998 to 2004, the European Union had a moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified crops and food, so experts could study the risks involved. Under pressure from the World Trade Organization and the United States, that was lifted.

The European Commission has been under enormous pressure to open its doors to crops like this ever since a W.T.O. decision in 2006 that made banning genetically modified crops tantamount to an illegal trade barrier.

But if the approval process for industrial Amflora has proved a challenge - BASF first filed an application to grow the potatoes in 1994 - the road will certainly be far more arduous for other planned genetically modified crops because they do involve plants intended for food or animal feed. "That will be a much tougher sell," Ms. Helferrich said. Indeed, BASF has a second application for Amflora pending that would allow the potato residue after starch extraction to be used as animal feed.

Even Germany, which has favored the approval of Amflora for industrial use, would not support that application, said Wolfgang Kohler, head of the unit for gene technology at the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. He said: "I'm very doubtful we could vote in favor for food and feed because of fears about transmission" of genes into the environment or food supply.

He noted that more than 70 percent of Germans say they do not want genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.'s, in their food and the German food industry "does everything it can to avoid using this stuff."

Polls by the European Commission have shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of Europeans distrust genetically modified plants. "We can authorize as many crops as we want, but the bigger problem is to convince people they are safe," Ms. Helferrich said.

In the United States, where genetically modified crops have been grown widely for more than a decade, approvals are left to expert agencies. But in the European Union - where voters and politicians are more passionate about food - such approvals involve a more democratic process.

On a crop-by-crop basis, the scientific recommendations of the European Food Safety Agency are voted on by ministers from the 27 member states. Approvals bounce back and forth and ultimately arrive at the European Commission in Brussels when member states cannot agree.

"As a scientist I have a hard time understanding it, but this is how Europe has chosen to make these decisions," said Susanne Benner, communications director at BASF. "But it's hard when you see an innovative product go through the loops again and again. These decisions are not about science but about politics."

In February 2006, a scientific review by the European Food Safety Agency concluded that planting Amflora to make starch posed no more risk than planting an ordinary potato. Based on that opinion, Europe's administrative governing body, the European Commission, recommended approval and passed the application to the Council of Ministers, where it has been voted on twice, first by a council of experts from member states in December and again on Monday by European agriculture ministers. Approval requires a 74 percent majority.

But the two votes were inconclusive, with a huge number of countries abstaining on a decision that is a political minefield. The voting is anonymous, but some information leaked out: In the second vote, the agriculture ministers of Italy, Ireland and Austria voted no; Germany and Belgium said yes; and France and Bulgaria abstained.

"These are elected politicians and they have to face the general unease at home about G.M.O.'s," said a European Union official who asked not to be identified because of the delicacy of the issue. "They are passing the buck to the commission, which is between a rock and a hard place on this issue."

Many experts and even some of Europe’s environment ministers continue to dispute the European food agency’s scientific opinion that Amflora is safe for cultivation. One concern is that it contains a gene for antibiotic resistance that could get out of the potato and into the environment, making bacteria that infect man and beast more difficult to treat.

The European Food Safety Agency concluded that this was unlikely given the closed system in which potato-based starch is produced. But a second dossier from BASF - one that received a positive review from the food safety agency, but has not yet come to a ministers' vote - involves using leftover Amflora pulp from starch production for animal feed.

"It is a fact that there will be contamination, given the volume of the industry," said Mr. Contiero of Greenpeace. "And if animals are eating pulp it certainly will end up in food. This is not just an opinion."

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