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expert reaction to EU ruling on GM crops

EU environment ministers came to a deal to allow nation stated to authorize growing of genetically modified crops, pending approval by the European Parliament. 


Prof Joe Perry, Chair of the EFSA GMO Panel, and University of Greenwich, said:

“As the EC stress, the authorisation system would remain unchanged.  The risk assessment carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will remain as strict as it is today to ensure a high level of protection for human health, animal health and the environment.   This means that the safety of any crops for which there was an application to be grown in the UK would have already been assessed in publically accessible, transparent reports. “


Prof Huw Jones, Research Group Leader at Rothamsted Research, said:

“This decision could free-up the blocked approvals process for cultivation of risked-assessed GM crops.  In the short term it will help the Commission deal with the backlog of current applications waiting for approval but in the longer-term it will send a positive message to the biotech seed-producers that some countries in the EU are potential customers of this technology.

“Some biotech traits like herbicide tolerant sugar beet and late-blight resistant potatoes would be particularly useful for UK growers.”


Prof Jonathan Jones, Plant Molecular Biologist at the Sainsbury Laboratory, said:

“Previously, states which prefer not to plant GM crops needed to block adoption at the EU level.  Now, because an opt-out is enabled, states do not need to veto events that are approved by EFSA.  I hope this means that GM traits will be approved Europe-wide on a rational and scientific basis, with some states opting to not plant specific traits if they so choose.

“The outcome is effectively what we recommended in our ‘GM science update’ to CST

except that instead of states choosing to adopt, they will be able to choose to not adopt.”


Prof Denis Murphy, Professor of Biotechnology at the University of South Wales, said:

“All this does is potentially give options for member states to approve a very limited number of approved GM crops for cultivation, which could result in a very small number of GM varieties being grown in England.

“However it also means that the devolved administrations, which have power over agriculture, can impose bans on GM crops within their borders.

“In Wales we are already seeing pressure to ensure GM crops are banned by our parochial assembly.

I have discussed this off the record with Assembly Members of all parties, and while many of them agree that there is no substantial scientific reason to ban GM crops here, they also admit that to say this publicly would be ‘political suicide’.  So I think this is very bad news for farming in Wales.”


Declared interests

Professor Jonathan Jones, Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich:

Jones did his PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and then worked on symbiotic nitrogen fixation at Harvard. He began making GM plants in 1983 at a startup agbiotech company, Advanced Genetic Sciences (now defunct) in Oakland California, where he worked for 5 years.  He used the GM method to make discoveries about what regulates gene expression in GM plants, and about plant transposable DNA.

Since 1988, Jones has been a researcher at the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich (, funded largely by David Sainsbury’s private charity the Gatsby Foundation. He has led a well-regarded basic research program into mechanisms of plant disease and plant disease resistance, for which he was elected EMBO member in 1999 and FRS in 2003. He is one of the highest cited plant scientists in Europe ((

Jones is cofounder of (in 1997) and science advisor to the biotech company Mendel Biotechnology. Monsanto was a major client, but no longer is. As of July 2010, Mendel had been granted over 20 biotechnology and GM patents. In its 2008 Annual Report it listed as one of two lines of business that were central to its growth a collaborative project with Monsanto on soybean yield, “the basis of which is a Mendel technology”.  However it is not clear if this trait will be brought to market. Mendel’s 2009 Annual Report noted two collaborative partnerships: one with Monsanto and the other with Bayer CropScience.

Jones also co-founded Norfolk Plant Sciences in 2007 with Prof Cathie Martin of JIC, with the goal of bringing flavonoid-enriched tomatoes to market (  Regulatory constraints in Europe mean that the benefits of this product are likely to brought to market in Canada before this happens in Europe.

He is also on the Science advisory board of Nomad Biosciences in Halle, Germany, which aims to produce human pharmaceutical and other valuable proteins using plant viruses rather than GM plants.

He recently became a science advisor to start-up Scottish biotech company Synpromics (

Jones is on the board of and the science advisory board of David Sainsbury’s 2Blades foundation (

In addition to his basic science programs, Jones has isolated and is isolating new resistance genes against potato late blight from wild relatives of potato, with the goal of using them to deliver market-favoured potato varieties that are protected from late blight by genes, rather than by chemistry.  Patents have been filed on the Rpi-vnt1 gene, which was trialed in Norfolk, and the gene is being commercialized in the US by Simplot (

Because of his 30+ years of experience with using the GM method, his distinguished academic career, his commitment to public engagement, his familiarity with the seeds and agbiotech industry, and his concern that the potential benefits of using GM methods be brought to public use and not carelessly spurned, he is sporadically called upon to provide advice to government.  He was a coauthor on and on the annexe to a recent report about GM requested by the Council on Science and Technology (



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