Transgenic Crop Sabotage Draws Fire from Commissioner

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 17, 2002 (ENS) - Following the destruction by environmental activists of an experimental field trial with genetically modified oilseed rape in Alost, Belgium, last week, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin today expressed his "firm disapproval for these acts of violence."

This is the first time the Belgian commissioner has publicly criticized a specific case of genetically modified crop sabotage, though such attacks have been happening all over Europe since at least 1997. In this case, no group has stepped forward to take responsibility for the sabotage.

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European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
"This is an example of ignorance and prejudice leading to illegal acts of violence, that in the long run can only deny society the benefits that scientific progress will bring about," said Commissioner Busquin.

"The freedom of research is a fundamental value in democratic societies. This kind of research is key to overcoming suspicion and uncertainty about such crops," he said.

The plant trials destroyed during the attacks had been authorized by Belgian authorities and were carried out under the appropriate health and safety conditions, in full compliance with Europen Union and local legislation. The oilseed rape plants destroyed are known as canola in North America. Oilseed rape is used for food oil and animal feed.

Field research on genetically modified crops has virtually come to a halt in most EU countries, due to public hostility. Last year, the Commission's Joint Research Centre, which monitors these activities in cooperation with EU Member States, received 88 notifications for genetically modified field trials. By comparison, an average of 1,500 field trials are carried out annually in the United States.

The commissioner is concerned that researchers studying genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are leaving Europe in search of trouble free conditions. "If we do not invest enough in GMO research, our ability to innovate and assess potential risks could be hampered. Ultimately, European citizens will be the losers," Busquin said.

The plants targeted by vandals had been modified through new, more precise and efficient genetic methods. "Adding the same genes through conventional plant breeding methods is a far more imprecise and longer process. If carried out in the proper safety framework," the commissioner stated, "promising GMO technologies are expected to enhance EU performance in health, environmental and agricultural policy."

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Field of oilseed rape, or canola, in flower (Photo courtesy Biotechnology Australia)
In a joint media release on March 27, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) urged EU governments and the European Commission to safeguard European agriculture and biodiversity by preventing any genetically modified crops of beet and oilseed rape being grown in the European Union. A report by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) issued last year confirmed a risk of massive contamination if genetically modified crops are commercially grown in Europe.

Based on the EEA’s conclusions, such a risk is unmanageable particularly for oilseed rape and beet, the NGOs said.

In its report, the EEA warned that, "Oilseed rape can be described as a high risk crop for crop-to-crop gene flow and from crops to wild relatives … It is predicted that plants carrying multiple [herbicide] resistance genes will become common post-GM release … Oilseed rape is cross compatible with a number of wild relatives and thus the likelihood of gene flow to these species is high."

The problem was already recognized by the French government, which banned cultivation of genetically modified oilseed rape in 1998.

In January, the European Commission issued a manifesto for biotechnology calling for stronger backing for a sector seen as critical to future competitiveness. The communication proposed adopting "the highest standards of governance" to win over a skeptical public.

Tomorrow Busquin's research directorate will host the second meeting of the Round Table on GMO safety research as part of its strategy of trying to dispel public confusion over biotechnology through dialogue.

The Round Table brings together European biosafety researchers and other stakeholders, such as consumer organizations, environmental NGOs, national administrations and industry.

Over 15 years, the commission has been supporting 81 biosafety research projects for a total EU funding of € 70 million. The projects involved over 400 teams from all parts of Europe.