"The surest sign of the seed companies' despair is perhaps the decision by Aventis not to market its genetically modified forage maize, even though the company has completed all the right procedures and has all the licenses required under Dutch law." [article below]
"It now looks very doubtful that GM is going to be accepted in the EU in the next five, 10 or even 15 years" - a spokesman for Du Pont explaining why they have 'pulled the plug' on research on hybrid wheats which they planned to use to deliver GM traits. [Farmers Weekly, 22 March 2002]
"Even ardent supporters of biotech such as Prof Prakesh say... Europe remains the key to genuinely widespread adoption of the technology.
'It is a huge and affluent market that imports food from all over the world. The science began in Europe and Europe will dictate the future of agricultural biotechnology.' " [Financial Times, 26 March 2002]
R.I.P. GM crops
(by Jan Paul Smits. Originally written for 'Land en Stad':
In Europe field research on genetically modified crops has virtually ground to a standstill. There is strong public opposition, trial plots are being razed to the ground by activists and governments are holding back on new licensing permits. Seed giant executives have been voicing their disappointment, irritation or downright anger.
Kees Noome, biotech spokesman for the Anglo-Dutch seed multinational Advanta: "We started our genetic engineering field trials back in 1991. At their peak in 1996 we had forty plots going, but last season that was down to just one." It's not only Advanta that has seen its field trials collapse so rapidly. The picture's the same all over Europe. Over the past few years the number of plots with genetically modified species has simply plummeted.
These events are having a profound effect on GM crop research and development. Noome: "In the lab you design a plant with new genetic features, which you then test in the field. Having identified any design flaws in the plant, you go back to the laboratory and start the cycle anew." Without field trials, this cycle is broken and research on GM crops simply ends, even in the lab. The only option open to Advanta is to dismantle its genetic engineering laboratories and relocate the workers.
Simon Barber is a scientist at Europabio, a European association of biotechnology corporations and allied organisations. He agrees with Noome that there's a major decline in the number of experimental fields in Europe. "That's absolutely true", he shouts down the phone. "It's dramatic!" He e-mails me a graph showing that the number of European outdoor trials has dropped from over 240 in 1997 to about 40 in 2001, a decrease of over 80 per cent.
Rob Janssen, director of Niaba, a Dutch umbrella for a variety of biotech operations, small and large, does his best to stay cool. "Yes, there's been a drop in the number of fields here in the Netherlands and we're seeing virtually no new permit applications," he says in a level tone but adds, with venom: "And that's all down to minister Pronk flouting the law and stalling applications." But Janssen, too, agrees that the number of fields has plummeted.
These reports are also confirmed by a biotechnologist working for RABO, the Dutch bank traditionally serving the agricultural sector, who wished to remain anonymous. "There have been so many protests. Greenpeace has lobbied extensively against the outdoor trials and young activists have simply ploughed up the fields or burned them down. Environmental groups and the anti-globalisation have joined in for motives of their own. People are scared of genetic engineering. In Europe, the agro-biotech industry is going through very tough times."
The sombre vision of Advanta spokesman Noome is shared by Siemen de Jong, biotech spokesman for the major seed and pesticide corporation Aventis, Oscar Goddijn, managing director of Syngenta Mogen, a Leiden-based GM research institute, and Jan Madlener, biotech communications manager of Syngenta Seeds.
The gravestone epitaph R.I.P. signals a moment for reflection. What have the seed firms gained with their GM trials? In a word, one big headache. Take Advanta, for example. In the spring of 2000 this multinational was at the centre of an international biotechnology scandal. The company's Canadian branch had sold over 600 farmers in England, France, Germany and Sweden rapeseed that proved to be contaminated with a GM variety. French president Jospin decreed that the plants that had been sown should be destroyed. The large organisation of French small farmers, the Confédération Paysanne, called for an immediate boycott of seed imports from countries where GM crops are already regular practice. Their motive was basically practical: to exclude the risk of contamination with modified seed. British MPs on both sides of the house called for compensation for affected farmers and Greenpeace-Germany took the matter to court on the grounds that the marketing of GM rapeseed is illegal in Europe. Advanta eventually announced it would award full damages to the farmers.
In the Netherlands the staunchly moderate farmers' weekly 'Boerderij' gave the seed giant a public trashing. "Companies doing work on genetically modified crops say they are doing all they can to eliminate risks. Seeds merchants Advanta have already caused a rumpus outside Europe. Now there's talk of introducing a one per cent 'tolerance' limit for GM seed in Europe, Advanta are arguing that some degree of contamination is acceptable. These tactics of evasion do not help the credibility of biotechnology one bit and will depress consumer confidence even further."
For Advanta, obtaining the government permits required for outdoor GM trials has grown from a major nuisance into a fill- blown nightmare. Back in mid-May 2000 the company was finally granted the first of the fifteen permits it had applied for - after minister Pronk had stalled on the issue for no less than fourteen months. Noome, visibly irritated: "The growing season is already underway and now we threaten to lose the entire year."
To compound matters further, two residents of Amsterdam have teamed up with Greenpeace and successfully challenged the legality of even this permit before the Dutch Supreme Court, which agreed with the environmentalists that the location of the scheduled trial plot had not been defined precisely enough. To comlete the confusion, ministers Pronk and Brinkhorst (Environment and Agriculture, respectively) announced in June 2001 that they were withdrawing seven licenses that had already been issued to Advanta. As a finishing touch, a week later the ministers turned down all the remaining applications on similar grounds.
Even the field trials for which Advanta did have approval were a failure. In August 1998 a group of about thirty activists destroyed a field of GM maize planted by Advanta subsidiary Sharpes outside the village of Dartington in south-west England. According to the company the activists caused some 600,000 pounds worth of damage. The GM trials had already led to considerable consternation in the region. In an attempt to have the trials banned a local organic farmer had twice filed lawsuits, but without success. Days before the GM maize was to be sown some 600 people had demonstrated against the trials. Media reports of the demo led to a second protest gathering, attended again by several hundred people.
When the first of the original activists was summoned to court six months later, hundreds of people took to the streets once more. To everyone's utter surprise, the charges were withdrawn by the public prosecutor at the very last moment. The official reason given: the British government was considering a three-year moratorium on the outdoor growing of GM crops. The activists, for their part, are convinced the court was more concerned to prevent the jury acquitting them, thus giving the green light for others to destroy GM fields.
Ripping up trial crops is more than a symbolic gesture. It's taken place on such a wide scale in Europe that GM crop research is now facing serious problems in this part of the world. Noome, of Advanta: "In England and France just about every field gets destroyed. It's quite dramatic. In England, for example, they come in with a huge combine and just mow the whole lot down. To which the courts respond by acquitting them, saying they were acting as conscientious objectors. Quite honestly, it's a verdict that gives me the creeps. In the Netherlands half our trial plots were ripped up last year."
Over the past few years genetic modification has been given a bad press on so many occasions the public has serious misgivings about the new technology. This has had major consequences. In their 1999 annual report, Advanta's Dutch parent company Cosun was already reporting: "Owing to critical public opinion on genetically modified products, sales and prices have remained far below expectations." And Noome recently expressed complete disillusionment: "The next five to ten years there's not a cent to be earned with GM crops. (_) The majority of consumers here just aren't interested in genetically modified products. (_) That means it's no longer commercially viable to push ahead." Advanta is therefore abandoning its entire European GM operations.
The surest sign of the seed companies' despair is perhaps the decision by Aventis not to market its genetically modified forage maize, even though the company has completed all the right procedures and has all the licenses required under Dutch law. Siemen de Jong, Aventis' biotech spokesman: "We could launch the new crop tomorrow, but it's to be seriously doubted whether the time is right. You know how much debate there is out there_"
The fight against the new biotechnology is by no means over yet, however. In the US, Canada and Argentina GM crops are today being cultivated on over forty million hectares of farmland. The United States continues to put pressure on Europe and the developing countries to approve imports of their genetically modified farm produce. Even in the US there are still numerous outdoor GM trials in progress. In addition, GM products are finding their way into the food chain via animal fodder and the pharmaceuticals industry is pressing ahead worldwide with genetic engineering programmes.
Even so, the entire anti-GM movement has reason to celebrate, from the smart-suited lobbyists of the environmental movement to the activists destroying trial plots in the night, from radical farmers to politicians of explicitly Christian signature. In Europe, at any rate, genetically modified food crop research and development has ground to a halt. Congratulations!