Europe’s top farm researcher has abandoned work on developing new genetically modified crops (GMOs) due to widespread distrust and even hostility by European consumers.
“We have no research on GMO innovation anymore, none,” Marion Guillou, president of the National Institute for Agronomical Research (INRA), told Reuters in an interview.
INRA, which has more than 1,800 researchers and is the leader in Europe in publication of scientific articles on agriculture, is now focusing on conventional crop strains and limiting its research on GMOs to assessing or improving plants as opposed to creating new varieties, she said.
“Since European society does not want to buy GMOs, we had better focus on other technology,” she said.
Under European Union law, only two GMO varieties are approved for cultivation, and planting in the 27-member bloc was limited to less than 100,000 hectares last year out of more than 134 million cultivated.
While GMO crops are widely used in countries such as the United States and Brazil, France – the EU’s largest grain producer whose citizens are among the staunchest biotech skeptics – banned GMO crop growing in 2008 after protests by local green groups.
Guillou said she feared the EU may lag behind in GMO technology, which aims to boost crop yields to feed the world’s growing population, and that the beneficiaries of this aversion to GMOs will be the big international biotech companies.
These include Monsanto of the United States and Switzerland’s Syngenta.
Research in Europe on GMO plants is mainly carried out in laboratories after activists began ransacking field tests.
Repeated destruction of GMO field tests has also discouraged INRA. Transgenic vines tested by the institute were uprooted in August in Colmar, in eastern France, leaving only one outside test, a forest of GM poplar trees.
“That’s 1.2 million euros ($1.7 million) and seven years of researchers’ work destroyed,” Guillou said, calling for strong judicial sanctions against the activists.
INRA’s work on new varieties now involves only conventional crops, for which research is less efficient, longer and more expensive, but for which there is a market, she said.
An example of current conventional research at INRA is a wheat plant resistant to fusarium, a fungus that produces mycotoxins that lower the grain’s quality.
“We try to continue working with French and European seed makers so that there remains plants that are adapted to the European climate and agricultural conditions,” Guillou said.
French seeds group Limagrain also abandoned field tests in France in 2008 and transferred them to the United States.
The European Union’s current proposal to let EU states decide for themselves whether or not to allow GMO crops would not be enough to bring a resurgence in GMO research in Europe, Guillou said.
INRA would consider investing in GMO crop development only with a change in consumer attitudes, she said.
“The real change for us in order to come back to innovation, to create a new variety that has a particular characteristic useful to society, would be the day when the public asks for these plants,” Guillou said.
“It’s not going to be easy. For 20 years you have had people telling the public that GMO is by nature diabolic,” she said. “At the same time it’s the same people who travel to the United States or other countries and eat GMOs cheerfully.”