Last week the European Commission threatened 12 EU member states with court action if they continue to ignore new EU legislation regulating the release of GMOs into the environment. A new survey released this week backs up the Commission's fears revealing that the number of field trials with genetically modified plants has fallen by about 80 per cent since 1998 in the European Community.
Not totally surprising, the currently valid EU-wide moratorium on cultivating GM plants was the principle culprit for the significant fall in GM crop cultivation. In addition, the Survey, led by Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI, Karlsruhe, highlights the fact that the EU is lagging behind on a global scale with figures revealing that the actual area used for growing genetically modified plants world-wide increased to almost 60 million hectares in 2002.
The reasons for the restraint in Europe are varied. In addition to the moratorium, which was agreed by the EU Council of Environment Ministers in 1999, acceptance of genetically modified products by European consumers is still extremely low. Consumer suspicion has led to considerable market uncertainties for producers. Only the biggest can afford to fight the GM corner with the survey showing that it is primarily multinational, financially strong companies that are active in this area, conducting 65 per cent of all field trials. By contrast, small or medium-sized companies have a meagre 6 per cent share of the market, are more cautious and try to position themselves mainly in niche markets. The remaining releases are conducted by public research bodies, universities or other institutions.
The survey confirms the fact that, as a result of the moratorium, there is a vast back log of GM possibles in the European pipeline. But the Commission hopes that thanks to the new EU Directive passed in October last year, and so far ignored by the majority of EU states, there will be a surge in field tests.
And what of the future? Fraunhofer ISI predicts that producers will at first concentrate on herbicide-tolerant plants and on strengthening resistance to insects and diseases. Plants with health-promoting substances or allergy-reduced plants for human food consumption are probably not to be expected until the next decade.