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Posted Mar 04 2010 12:06pm

Environmental groups slam the decision as a threat to human health, while two of its member countries express their opposition.

It is twelve years since there was European approval for a genetically modified crop until yesterday when the European Commission in Brussels authorized the cultivation of a genetically modified potato crop. The Amflora potatoes to be produced by the German corporation BASF -  the world’s leading chemical company - will not be used for human consumption. The potatoes are designated as being for ‘industrial use’, which will include animal feed and the production of starch for paper making. However, the fact that the potato is a food crop is seen as significant. BASF first applied for approval more than thirteen years ago. The EU Commission also agreed to the sale of three genetically modified maize products within Europe, although the crops themselves will not actually be grown in Europe.

There has been a long running debate over the potential merits and detrimental effects of cultivating genetically modified crops. One of the major arguments in support of growing genetically modified crops is that they are capable of producing a better yield than and, therefore, address the problem of food supplies for a growing world population. Its claims to be able to do this include the increased ability to resist pests, diseases, and weed killers, its tolerance of drought and high salt levels in soil, and the possibilities of growing nutritionally enhanced crops. There is also the potential to develop edible vaccines, which - with their ability to be more easily shipped, stored, and administered than injectable vaccines - could greatly benefit the third world. Heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. A non-food use  of the genetically engineered ‘crop’ is that plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered in order to clean this up.

A diverse collection of organizations and individuals have raised concerns about the genetic modification of crops, particularly food, feeling that not enough is known with regard to the safety of food produced in this way, which could be potentially harmful to human health. There is also a risk that introducing genes into a food plant could increase the risk of allergic reactions among susceptible individuals. Antibiotic resistance is yet another worrying possibility which could pass over into the humans who consume food produced in this way. There are a variety of concerns too regarding hazards to the environment, some of which could result to massive changes in the natural infrastructure. There is a fear that there would be unintended harm to other organisms, reduced effectiveness of pesticides and herbicides, and the transfer of genes to crops that have not been genetically modified, particularly organically grown crops.

Following the announcement on Tuesday, many of these concerns were r forcefully reiterated by opponents of genetically modified crops, including Greenpeace, and Friends of The Earth. Austria’s ministry of health initiated an immediate ban on the cultivation of the crop. Italy too, strongly opposed the decision with the Minister of Agriculture saying that Italy would continue to defend ‘traditional agriculture and citizens health.

Scientific evidence has been evoked and refuted in the ongoing debate. On Tuesday the EU commission said its decision was ‘based on a considerable volume of sound science.’ and the EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner declared, “Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies…”

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