Scientists at Europe's budding food watchdog have given the green light to a genetically engineered food crop from biotech giant Monsanto.
Asked by the European Commission to assess the impact on human and animal health as well as the environment of releasing Monsanto's GT73 oilseed rape onto the market, the GMO panel concluded, 'GT73 is unlikely to have an adverse effect' branding the herbicide-tolerant GM oilseed rape as safe as its conventional equivalent.
In 1997 Monsanto received regulatory approval from Europe for the use of GT73 in human food but the biotech giant has yet to achieve the same status for feed and the environment in the EU. Despite food approval, an unofficial ban on genetically-modified foods in place in the EU since 1998 has stopped the crop from entering the food supply.
In the pro-GM camp observers will welcome the GT73 decision taken this week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They are eager to see the Commission moving closer to revoking the unofficial ban but they are up against strong consumer pressure to keep the moratorium in place until further scientific studies under the European umbrella are carried out to measure the impact of GM foodstuffs on health and the environment.
Argentine or oilseed rape (Brassica napus) is grown as a commercial crop in 50 countries, with a combined harvest of over 40 million metric tonnes. The major producers of rapeseed in 2000 were China, Canada, India, Germany, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Canola is a genetic variation of B. napus with low levels of the natural rapeseed toxins glucosinolate and erucic acid, developed through conventional plant breeding. Canola is grown for its seed, which represents a major source of edible vegetable oil and is also used in livestock feeds.
The major food use of canola in North America and Europe is as a refined oil. Typically, canola oil is used by itself as a salad oil or cooking oil, or blended with other vegetable oils in the manufacture of margarine, shortenings, cooking and salad oils. The refined edible canola oil consists of purified triglycerides (96-97 per cent) and triglycerides (96-97 per cent) and does not contain any detectable protein. Canola meal, a byproduct of the oil production process, is added to livestock feed rations.
Monsanto's GM oilseed rape gained regulatory approval from the Australian government last year for release into the environment, buidling on the clearance for food obtained in 2000. Since 1995 Canada has given the all clear for GT73 on all fronts - food, feed and environment - and in Japan since 1996. The US cleared Monsanto's crop for release into the environment in 1999 as well as food/feed in 1995.
Despite the imminent arrival of the toughest rules in the world on the labelling of GM ingredients, the European consumer is archly suspicious of genetically modified foodstuffs. Moves by the Commission to encourage a lifting of the GM unofficial ban have met with opposition from the EU15 with ministers failing to reach a majority decision on a number of GM related issues.
Most recently, meeting last month Europe's Regulatory Committee on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, part of the Environment Directorate, failed to reach a majority decision to back the Commission's proposal to clear the way for imports of Monsanto's GM maize NK603. A decision that now lies in the hands of the Council of Ministers.