This article is part of our special report Biotechnology: Europe’s next ‘hot potato’.
Updates with EuropaBIO comments (Check Positions)
According to the UN, the amount of food produced globally needs to double to feed a rising world population. Policymakers are poring over ways to ensure the sustainability of food systems while emerging new technologies, promising to tackle climate change, still face resistance.
“We cannot achieve sustainability with the exact same production models that we used 100 years ago when all the other variables have changed,” the outgoing EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told EURACTIV.com
Andriukaitis said he had spent a great deal of time reflecting and talking about food, about what works and what doesn’t, about the ways to improve the sustainability of food systems.
“So, before we reject and ban science – be it GMO or New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs), let’s have a very serious discussion on how the progress in science can benefit us while addressing the challenges of the global warming and biodiversity,” he said.
NPBT denotes a number of scientific methods for the genetic engineering of plants to enhance factors like drought tolerance and pest resistance
The UN estimates that the world population will reach 8.5 billion in 2030, and increase further to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. The World Food Programme (WFP) has said the causes of increased hunger include environmental degradation and drought, both impacted by climate change, as well as conflicts.
The rapid advancement of biotechnology such as GMOs and NPBTs promises to tackle climate change. However, in many parts of the world, including Europe, biotechnology faces strong opposition.
For instance, GMOs are banned from cultivation in most of Europe. In addition, the EU Court has ruled that NPBTs are basically GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
While EU policymakers have repeatedly called for trust in science, the opposition comes mainly comes from environmentalist groups, who insist that food production systems and conventional farming should change and focus on greater sustainability and agroecological practices.
Eric Gall from EU organic farmers’ union (IFOAM) said GMOs have had negative impacts, especially concerning the increasing use of herbicides and the consolidation of corporate control over seeds.
“Rather than genetic engineering, to feed a rising population we need to focus on issues relating to the access to means of production and land, and on systemic agronomic solutions that make farming systems more resilient and less dependent on expensive external inputs,” he told EURACTIV.
He added that introducing products from genetic engineering into the environment can lead to unexpected outcomes and is a risky experiment.
“To tackle climate change, we need a focus on agronomy to develop agroecological farming systems that reduce the overall environmental impacts of agriculture and help farmers adapt to climate change”.
EURACTIV also contacted Greenpeace but it declined to provide a comment.
FAO as a broker
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says it’s “imperative” that we move towards sustainable food systems, which produce more food, of greater nutritional value and with less environmental damage.
“FAO believes that science and technology can play a substantial role in providing solutions to these challenges. The suite of technologies available to producers for this purpose should be as broad as possible, including conventional technologies, such as those used to improve water management in irrigated and rainfed production systems, as well as the wide range of agricultural biotechnologies,” FAO’s Chikelu Mba told EURACTIV.
When it comes to GMOs, FAO recognises that they can help in some circumstances to increase production and productivity and thus contribute to food security and nutrition.
“But FAO is also aware of the concerns about the potential risks that GMOs pose regarding the effects on human and animal health and the environment,” Mba said, adding that the potential benefits and risks associated with the application of GMOs should be carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Regarding the new gene-editing techniques, the FAO official explained that a few high-income countries have taken decisions on the subject but most low- and middle-income countries lag behind in establishing the regulatory status of genome-edited organisms.
“Using its neutral broker role, FAO stands ready to play an important role in this ongoing debate,” he said.
Smallholders and innovation
Mba also emphasised the need to help smallholders in developing countries access the new agricultural technologies considering that some key factors are very often missing.
“Improving the linkages and cooperation between the research and extension systems and farmers makes it easier not only for farmers to access, and benefit from, the work of researchers, but also for researchers to learn from, and build upon, farmers’ knowledge and innovations,” he said.
“It is important to have well-functioning and sustainably-funded agricultural innovation systems, where the different components of the system, such as research, extension and the farmers themselves, work well together towards common goals […] the full participation of the smallholders themselves is key,” Mba added.
GM debate to intensify in Europe
The biotech industry insists that Europe should rethink its approach to biotechnology and emphasises the need for a science-based decision against misinformation.
It says biotechnology has a proven “record of increasing farmers’ incomes whilst reducing CO2 emissions”, amongst many other benefits.
“Over more than 20 years of commercialisation, GM crops have proven to be as safe as conventional crops, as confirmed by leading scientific institutions, including in Europe. It is time for EU decision-makers to stand up for innovation and against misinformation,” EuropaBIO, which represents the biotech industry groups, told EURACTIV
In an emailed response, EuropaBIO said the GM discussion is expected to intensify “within the next two years at most”.
The core of the debate will be the EU Court ruling on gene editing, which according to the industry will block EU farmers’ access for many years to come unless urgent action is taken.
“EuropaBio supports calls by the most relevant scientific institutions, business sectors, farming groups and by the Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism to modernise the GMO legislation,” the industry said.
Another reason for the GM debate to heat up is because GM crops are relevant to the ongoing discussions about modern agriculture and sustainability.
“For example, insect-resistant GM crops have a proven record to significantly reduce insecticide use globally,” EuropaBio said.
The industry also points out the severe impact on SMEs and public researchers due to Europe’s regulatory framework on biotechnology.
“The EU’s approval system for GMOs has prevented farmers from accessing products that have been used safely for decades in other parts of the globe and is so slow and expensive that even import authorisations represent an insurmountable hurdle for SMEs and public institutions,” the biotech industry said.
The rise of Greens in Europe
The debate about the future of EU farming cannot disregard the rise of Green parties across the bloc. The Greens have been quite critical of biotechnology and hailed the court decision on gene editing.
But for Jesus Madrazo, head of agricultural affairs and sustainability, crop science at Bayer, the new green generations approach science and innovation with “a degree of positivism”.
“I see some examples in some new, young Green leaders that are questioning the decisions of the past […] They see that in order to get to this sustainable future that they aspire, they need innovation,” Madrazo told EURATIV at a Bayer event in Germany earlier this month.
The official of the German agri-food giant called for a more inclusive debate among all relevant stakeholders, including farmers and civil society. “There’s no perfect solution, every decision will mean a trade-off,” he said.
“I am hopeful that reason will prevail, science will have its own place, and some of these innovations will see the light at the end of the tunnel in Europe,” he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]