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Report on GM maize Bt11 said to justify new scientific doubts

MON810 GM maize: France seeks new cultivation ban

The French government has applied to the European Commission to suspend the reauthorisation of genetically modified MON810 Bt maize. It claims that an EFSA report on another Bt maize variety casts new scientific doubts on the environmental safety of MON810. In September the European Court of Justice declared that the French ban on cultivating MON810 was unlawful. If the Commission does not comply with the request, France can invoke the safeguard clause and declare another cultivation ban.

European corn borer larva in the stem of a maize plant. Bt maize forms an insecticidal substance – a Bt protein – in all parts of the plant that kills the pest larvae.

The European Commission is currently preparing to make a decision on whether to reauthorise the cultivation of MON810. In the European Union, GM crop plants are only ever authorized for ten years and must then undergo another risk assessment. The reassessment of MON810 was completed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2009. EFSA was unable to identify any scientific grounds for refusing the reauthorisation application.

The French government has now requested that the authorisation procedure be suspended, citing an EFSA report on a genetically modified Bt maize variety from Syngenta dated December 2011. The Bt11 maize variety produces the same Bt protein for targeting the European corn borer as MON810: Cry1Ab.

The EFSA report points out that when Bt11 and other Bt plants are grown, there is always a risk of resistant subpopulations of pests emerging. For the cultivation of Bt11, EFSA therefore recommends carrying out resistance management measures like those that should be implemented when growing MON810.

The report also says that the Bt proteins produced by Bt11 and MON810 can be regarded as equivalent in terms of their biological effectiveness. Moreover, it states that the two varieties produce comparable quantities of Bt protein in their pollen. As a result, EFSA’s GMO Panel concludes that the mathematical model used to calculate the potential risk of MON810 to butterflies and moths, which was developed in 2010, can be applied to Bt11. According to this model, the most sensitive butterfly species could be harmed by MON810 in a worst case scenario, but only 0.3 to 0.8 per cent of the population would be affected. EFSA therefore recommends planting border rows of conventional maize plants around Bt maize fields, and carrying out monitoring activities if extremely sensitive species are present. If all the recommended measures are complied with, EFSA regards the cultivation of Bt11 to be safe.

The French Ministry of the Environment interprets EFSA’s statements about the comparability of Bt11 and MON810 as indications that the report on Bt11 casts new scientific doubts on the environmental safety of MON810. At the same time, it criticises the fact that the reassessment has not yet been carried out in accordance with the new guidance that came into force in 2010.

France issued a ban on MON810 cultivation in 2008. It was declared unlawful by the European Court of Justice in September 2011 because it did not have the right legal basis. However, if new scientific doubts about the safety of MON810 can be asserted, all EU member states will have the right to take immediate national measures, provided they have contacted the European Commission beforehand and the Commission has not taken action. So if the Commission does not follow up on France’s request, France has the option to reimpose the cultivation ban.

In practice, however, a new cultivation ban would have no effect: Monsanto declared publicly at the end of January that it will stop selling MON810 seed in France, whether or not the cultivation ban continues and regardless of the outcome of the reauthorisation procedure.

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