Politics is blocking GM research, say plant scientists

04 Nov 2014 | News
In advance of a debate on GM crops in the European Parliament, a group of scientists tells governments to stop impeding trials

Europe will not have the scientific knowledge to breed crops that are adapted to climate change if policymakers continue to outlaw field trials of transgenic plants on political grounds, say 21 of Europe’s most prominent botanists and ecologists in an open letter to the European Parliament. 

Plant scientists must be able to perform field experiments, using GM plants as research tools, for example to understand how native plants and crops protect themselves against pests and will react to climate change, the letter says.

“In most European countries, permits to perform field experiments with transgenic plants are blocked, not on scientific but on political grounds,” the scientists claim. “Where field experiments are permitted, "these are often systematically vandalised, causing huge scientific and financial losses.” 

In the UK, which is more open-minded than most European countries on the subject of GM crops, there is just one small field trial currently taking place. The signatories, from the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, are 21 of the 30 plant scientists with the most citations of their work in academic journals.

Stefan Jansson, a plant scientist in Umeå University, Sweden, who coordinated the letter said, “It is popular these days for campaigners to start petitions or send joint letters but this is not just any list of plant scientists, nor is it a list of scientists with links to industry, who some might say ‘would say that anyway’.” 

Clashes expected

The letter, drafted in late May, was released last week in advance of a debate on GM crops in the European Parliament. 

The Parliament’s Environment committee (ENVI) meets on Tuesday, 11 November, to consider a proposal, approved by the European Union’s 28 environment ministers in June 2014, to give back full responsibility to member states over the cultivation of GMs on their territory. The vote was originally slated for 5 November but MEPs requested more time with the dossier.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the Commission has backed the proposal. In a statement on his plans for the new Commission, he said, “It is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of member states is against.” 

It is expected that MEPs will call for member states to be able to impose national bans on GM crops on environmental or health grounds. But MEPs will reject a core element of the delicate compromise reached in June, which creates an obligation to inform the makers of the crops before a ban can be imposed. The member states agreed that GM companies can appeal against any ban, and that bans cannot last longer than two years, another detail that is likely be challenged by MEPs. 

Any eventual agreement made between the Parliament and the Council will not be the end of the story. The ongoing negotiation of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) involves discussions about opening up European markets to US GMOs

Seeds of doubt 

European rules on GM crops are among the strictest in the world. France, Austria and Hungary are fiercely against GM. On the other side of the debate, proponents of GM crops include Spain, Europe’s largest producer of GM crops, the UK, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. 

Supporters say that using advanced tools of plant genetics pose the best chance of supplying enough food for a global population that, by the end of the century, may well rise to ten billion people.

Opponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that the higher cost of patented seeds, produced by large corporations like Monsanto, will squeeze out poorer farmers. They also worry that pollen from GM crops will drift across fields, altering plant ecosystems forever. 

Funding is also an issue

The letter also complains about the lack of funding for research saying, “Plant science has arguably contributed more to the reduction of human suffering than biomedical research, yet compared with the latter it is hugely underfunded worldwide.” 

One of the signatories of the letter, speaking off the record, said getting any funding into Horizon 2020, the EU’s €80 billion research programme, was a struggle. “The word plant didn’t appear in the earliest drafts of the programme, and I was told at the time that there were strong forces who didn’t want it there,” the scientist said. 


After the ENVI committee adopts a negotiating position, three-way negotiations between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council will begin. A second round of negotiations will take place on 24 November, with a final round on 3 December.

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