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EU: Will doors be opened to allow genetically modified crops?

In 2001, the current EU directive on genetically modified (GM) crops made their cultivation in Europe almost impossible. That position seems due for revision now in light of new techniques, applications, and understanding.

Agroecologist Bert Lotz has been researching and debating this issue for more than 25 years. In 2023, the European Commission will come up with a proposal for revising the directive. "And that's big news," says Lotz. His first research on GM crops was done in 1996. At the behest of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, he and his colleague Jos Bijman did a literature study on what was known about the risks and opportunities associated with the first GM crops in America. "I will never forget the day I presented that report in The Hague. On the same day, Greenpeace was protesting at Rotterdam port. They blocked the first ship seeking to dock in Europe with a cargo of GM soya for livestock feed. We made the front page of the Volkskrant newspaper right away. Neither Greenpeace nor the US GM soya producer Monsanto agreed with our report. As a researcher, I was used to staying behind the scenes. It took a few days to sink in."

The outcome of that first report was a nuanced conclusion. It was about crops that had been modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, or glyphosate, so that the crops go on growing when the grower sprays against weeds. The researchers saw risks, especially for the development of resistance to Roundup in weeds.

But there also seemed to be opportunities: with limited use of Roundup at the right time and as a complement to mechanical weed control, spraying against weeds could be significantly reduced. "Findings that still stand today," confirms Lotz. "The first resistant weeds showed up within four years." And that actually led to even more Roundup being used. "In retrospect, that was an awkward introduction of Monsanto’s first application for a GM crop." It set the tone for the genetic engineering debate. In 2001, the EU adopted legislation that made the admission of GM crops almost impossible.

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