Genetic engineering policy needs modification

Green soy bean plant
Most GM crops counter some of the most damaging practices of conventional agriculture and it makes no sense for EU policy makers to preach environmental sustainability on the one hand while denying farmers the ability to implement the policies that are best suited to deliver this on the other.
Professor Paul Christou
Writing in the Cell Press journal Trends in Plant Science, scientists from Spain and the United Kingdom argue that the European Union will be unable to meet increased demand for food and crops in a sustainable and environmentally conscientious way without its changing policy with regard to genetically engineered (GE) crops.

The authors criticise the ‘paradoxical’ approach to agricultural policy within the EU which has, they say, distorted the economic and regulatory harmony that was aimed for into a ‘fragmented, contradictory and unworkable legislative framework’. Since the principles of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are not supported in – or, therefore, reflected by – practice, the EU damages not only the member states, but any chance they may have of fulfilling their humanitarian commitments going forward.

Professor Paul Christou, Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) research professor in the Department of Plant Production and Forestry Science at the University of Lleida’s Agrotecnio Centre for Research in Agrotechnology, addressed’s questions on the paper.

What reason does the EU have to hold on to the attitude that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not acceptable, maintaining policies to prevent their cultivation? According to Professor Christou and his co-authors, the suppression of GE crops is reflective of short-term political and economic goals as opposed to long-term sustainability in agriculture, human health, and food safety.

"It is simply political expediency, as governments are under pressure from vocal minority pseudo-environmental groups," he said. "Furthermore, the organic lobby uses GM as a negative marketing ploy to misinform EU consumers on the dubious benefits of organic products. As we explain in our article, safety is not an issue and this has been settled for good.

"Green parties and the environmental groups which support them have vested interests and political agendas; some of the so-called ‘environmental groups’ make money by campaigning against GM crops. We have all been consuming GM-derived products in processed food – as well as meat from animals fed on GM corn and soy – for over a decade in Europe, and there has not been a single incidence of any adverse effect."

Rather than fulfilling the stated aims of the European Commission, the Common Agricultural Policy has arguably had the opposite effect by reducing productivity, sustainability and competitiveness. Despite the fact that research attests to the safety of GM crops, current policy actively discriminates against farmers wishing to cultivate them, undermining competitiveness in the agricultural sector. Addressing the double standards whereby GM products can be imported but not grown here would, say the scientists, confer many benefits, including improved productivity and environmental sustainability.

"It would stop the migration of high tech companies from Europe to the US and other more open-minded regions, such as in the example of BASF moving operations to the US and cutting back on personnel and research programmes in Europe," Professor Christou argued.

"Job opportunities would be enhanced for people at all levels in the agricultural sector, thus contributing towards reducing unemployment in the EU and providing opportunities for highly paid jobs. Additionally, European consumers would benefit from reductions in the cost of buying food which is currently imported because it is not allowed to be grown in the EU."

A de facto moratorium is in place on GE maize, cotton and soybean, for example, despite the very same products being imported from overseas in order to meet demand. Particularly in terms of animal feed, the EU is dependent on imports of GE products from Brazil, the USA and Argentina, where the technology has been embraced. Genetically engineered food products have been approved for consumption by the European Food Safety Authority, and the scientific evidence has been stacking up over the past two and half decades that GM crops do not pose a threat, as Professor Christou pointed out.

"There are no other technologies that demand zero risk, and certainly none with such impressive credentials that the EU could state in a report following a 15-year study involving 400 public research institutions and costing 70 million euros that, ‘Genetically modified plants and products derived from them present no risk to human health or the environment […] these crops and products are even safer than plants and products generated through conventional processes’."

In a subsequent report covering the next decade, the EU Commission reiterated that, ‘The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies’.

The question of whether people are right to be wary of the power wielded by large agricultural biotechnology companies in this arena, Professor Christou said, has nothing to do specifically with GMOs. Large multinationals dominate in pharmaceuticals and the electronics industry alike.

"Farmers in Europe and elsewhere have been quite happy to buy their hybrid maize from multinational agribusiness for at least 50 years, receiving substantial economic benefits themselves through access to better products," Professor Christou contended. "These hybrids show better performance, higher yields and are more profitable. They were non-GM until a little over a decade ago. Now that the very same hybrids are GM the issue of control of agriculture by agricultural biotechnology companies is put forward as a major issue. It makes absolutely no sense."

Professor Christou and his colleagues recommend science-based regulation and the removal of a political component in the approval process of GM crops as a means of improving the situation. Innovation and widespread use of the best available and most appropriate technologies – not just biotechnology – will encourage productivity, sustainability and a better environment.

"Most GM crops counter some of the most damaging practices of conventional agriculture and it makes no sense for EU policy makers to preach environmental sustainability on the one hand while denying farmers the ability to implement the policies that are best suited to deliver this on the other."



This argument could only make sense where the likes of Monsanto didn't produce sterile seed. Nonsense on stilts by vested interests predicated on scaring the life out of ordinary citizens - most people could eat less and throw away less - 1/3 of all food in the UK is thrown away. This argument has nothing to do with real science and everything to do with the hubris of scientists.

Jim Conroy - Glasgow, United Kingdom
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