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17th Aug 2019

EU commission approves cultivation of first GM crop in 12 years

The European Commission on Tuesday (2 March) approved the first genetically modified crop for cultivation in Europe in 12 years, provoking the ire of environmental groups and some member states and cheers from the biotech industry.

The EU executive gave the green light to the growing of the Amflora potato, produced by Germany's BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, alongside the entry onto the European market of three GM maize products.

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  • Spuds: The new commission appears to have taken a fresh direction on the GMO hot potato (Photo: Wikipedia)

Austria denounced the decision, declaring that Vienna would immediately ban the potato, while Italy's agriculture minister warned that the commission had overstepped its authority.

"We will not allow the questioning of member states' sovereignty on this matter," he said.

In the past, a majority of EU member states has opposed the authorisation of the potato, which is not intended for human consumption. Rather, its starch would be used in industrial processes. Critics say however that the crop could cross with potatoes that humans do eat.

EU health commissioner John Dalli announced the decision saying the EU executive was committed to a "science-based union authorisation system."

"It is clear to me that there were no new scientific issues that merited further assessments ... All scientific issues, particularly those concerning safety for human and animal health and the environment have been fully addressed."

He added that the delays to approval were inhibiting innovation: "My guiding principle in the context of innovative technologies will be that of responsible innovation.  It is innovation that will give our citizens the best guarantee of safety and the strongest impetus for economic growth."

Green groups however are worried that the BASF potato contains a gene that confers resistance to some antibiotics.

While the European Food Safety Authority has given the potato a passing grade on a number of occasions, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have warned of the "critical importance" of the antibiotics affected by the Amflora potato, Greenpeace said in reaction to the commission green light.

"Releasing BASF's GM potato into the environment could raise bacterial resistance to life-saving medicines, including drugs used for the treatment of tuberculosis," said the group's agriculture campaigner, Marco Contiero.

"In six years, [EU Commission President] Barroso has been unable to bury scientific evidence questioning the safety of this GM potato," he continued, but now "health commissioner Dalli has agreed to this cold-blooded approval that flies in the face of science, public opinion and EU law."

In 2001, the EU adopted legislation phasing out products containing antibiotic resistance genes.

BASF for its part was happy with the decision. "After waiting for more than 13 years, we are delighted that the European Commission has approved Amflora," said Stefan Marcinowski, a member of the BASF board.

The company said commercial cultivation of the potato could begin as soon as this year. The potato is intended for industrial processes rather than human consumption. Its starch gives paper a higher gloss, and makes concrete and adhesives stay wet for a longer period of time, reducing the consumption of energy and raw materials.

Europabio, the European biotech industry trade association, said: "Today's approvals represent a step in the right direction and a return to science-based decision making. This is essential if European farmers are to be given the freedom to choose whether or not to cultivate innovative GM crops."

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