The number of release experiments with GM plants in Europe is decreasing all the time. The only exception is Spain, where major companies are carrying out a series of field trials. Only a few of the new releases relate to research and development projects involving plants with new or improved traits. The widespread public opposition to GM plants is making the environment surrounding research and authorisation increasingly difficult. Science and industry are responding in different ways.

By May 2012, only 41 new release applications had been submitted for GM plants in the European Union in 2012. Over 100 new applications were submitted in 2009, but the numbers have been falling steadily since then. 30 of the new applications for 2012 come from Spain. The remaining 11 come from Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

Of the 41 new applications, 27 involve cultivation trials being conducted by large companies like BASF and Bayer with GM plants that have already been developed. Almost all of these are taking place in Spain and involve testing maize, cotton and sugar beet that are resistant to pests or herbicides. The rest of the applications come, with one exception, from universities and public research bodies. Some relate to fundamental research and biosafety research. Only ten of the new release applications relate to projects for the development of plants with new or improved traits.

Higher vitamin content, lower nitrogen requirements, disease resistance

At Lleida University in Spain, for instance, researchers are releasing a South African sweetcorn variety that contains significantly higher levels of vitamin A, C and E than conventional maize varieties. The project is intended to help fight the widespread incidence of vitamin deficiency in developing countries. The transgenic maize was largely developed with help from scientists at the University of Frankfurt am Main.

In Sweden, transgenic barely plants will be released between 2012 and 2016 that have been engineered to require less nitrogen fertiliser. They contain two genes from thale cress, which enable the plants to take up nitrogen compounds from the surrounding soil, such as amino acids, more efficiently. The trials in Belgium are also concerned with modified growth traits: maize that grows taller without producing more biomass could be sown more thickly than conventional maize. In Spain researchers are testing poplars that produce more biomass.

Other release experiments in Spain involve maize and tobacco plants with a higher sugar and starch content for the production of bio-ethanol. A company in the Czech Republic is conducting research into transgenic flax that produces seeds containing higher levels of oleic acid.

Two applications relate to cisgenic plants. These are plants that contain new genes from the same species rather than from different species. Nevertheless, these plants are still classed as GMOs by law, so an application has to be submitted for any deliberate release into the environment. At Aarhus University in Denmark they have developed a cisgenic barley plant that contains an additional gene for the phytase enzyme. At the moment, this enzyme is produced using genetically modified micro-organisms and then added to pig and poultry feed. The phytase enables the animals to utilise a much greater proportion of the phosphorus contained in fodder crops. Since the animals then excrete fewer phosphorus compounds, this is also better for the environment.

Teagasc, Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority, has submitted an application for field trials with a cisgenic potato that was developed at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The potato is resistant to Phytophthora infestans, the pathogen that causes potato late blight, a major potato disease. Until now, potato late blight has been controlled almost exclusively with chemical plant protection products. The researchers inserted a resistance gene from a wild potato into a crop potato.

Public opposition

A Phytophthora-resistant potato was developed some time ago by BASF. It is being released in Germany once again in 2012 on just two of the four release areas listed in the German location register for this year, all of which were applied for before 2012. Numbers of release experiments are falling in Germany just as they are at European level. In 2007 there were around 80 experiments. By 2011 this figure had already fallen to 15.

Scientists and commercial firms in Europe that use genetic engineering methods in plant research and plant breeding have for years had to witness the destruction of crop trials. In other quarters too they face fierce public opposition, which is why the political situation surrounding the authorization of GM plants is so fraught with difficulty. BASF responded to this situation in 2012 by relocating its research division to the USA. The Üplingen display garden in Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, which until 2011 cultivated various GM plants and provided comprehensive information on agriculture and genetic engineering, will remain closed in 2012.

Scientists at the Rothamsted Research Institute to the south of London are trying a different approach. When radical GM opponents announced recently that they planned to destroy crops on the institute’s land at the end of May, they received a video appeal from the researchers. The trial field contains a variety of GM wheat that produces a scent from mint that keeps aphids away. In their appeal, the scientists explain why they see their research as a contribution to a more sustainable form of agriculture and call on the activists to refrain from destroying the crop and to enter into the spirit of dialogue.