GMO experts: ‘It’s an emotional debate, but not an irrational one’

GMO experts have called on the breadth of factors taken into account to be extended, in order to have a more informed debate on the issue. [Shutterstock]

The High Council of Biotechnology (HCB) held a conference on the implementation of the EU’s GMO rules. HCB President Christine Noiville and Frans Brom, a member of the Dutch government’s scientific council, answered EURACTIV France’s questions on the subject.

Noiville and Brom spoke to’s Editor-in-Chief, Aline Robert.

Why is the 2015 GMO Directive important?

Frans Brom: The Directive is crucial because it differentiates between safety issues, which are managed at a European level, and other issues concerning economics, society and culture. If modified plants are ruled not to be hazardous to health, and authorised by Brussels, the member states can adopt positions that are most relevant to them at a local level. This prevents science being twisted to suit a certain opinion. It means that the EU is forfeiting one of its competences, but it’s for a good cause.

Christine Noiville: Many GMO bans are wrapped up in arguments to do with environmental or health risks.  But there are other factors that are of real concern: patents can pose a real problem for farmers, GMOs’ co-existence with other crops, including organic plants, is also difficult. Finally, GMOs pose the question of what kind of agriculture we actually want.

It’s not about condemning it or rejoicing in it, it’s about to give this competence to the member states without opening the door to protectionist measures that won’t sit well with the WTO.

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You’ve met with several representatives of European countries to discuss the matter. Have you identified proposals that are more interesting than others?

FB: It’s difficult because there are a lot of parameters to think about, both qualitative and quantitative. But it is necessary to set up a climate of confidence for businesses, as the Germans have clearly underlined. They are going to prepare a document on the subject, which is now going to be examined by the Parliament.

When it comes to France, you made a recommendation to the government about the GMO law.

CN: Our recommendation consisted of making sure the 2015 Directive is given a clear interpretation because the text is very vague, so precise and concrete solutions are needed. HCB isn’t just here to be independent, we address all the aspects, both positive and negative. We aren’t here to help governments ban GMOs, we are here to inform their decisions.

Finally, we are also there to make solid arguments: there is a real risk that decisions will be challenged by the WTO. Today, we lack the data; we need a real social debate, involving farmers, consumers, and NGOs. This is not a simple question of cost/benefit analysis, it’s more complicated than that: it’s about plotting the course this is going in, which involves studying the advantages and disadvantages of GMOs, taking into account all the existing alternatives. There are factors like value, culture, and worldview to consider.

FB: Up until now, there has been one simple way of doing things: if it’s safe, it’s put on the market. But this isn’t enough now: we have to clarify the reasons behind putting it on the market. We have to answer the question of what solutions and problem do innovation bring?

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How do you address the imbalance between industry, which has a lot of resources and money to back its positions, and civil society, which is significantly less well equipped?

FB: If we talk about issues like value and society, one cannot say that industry has all the answers, on the contrary. This is why our approach is important.

CN: In the biotech debate, some have the scientific knowledge and the means to disseminate it, others have other knowledge that needs to be taken into account. The HCB is all about adding to the scientific community, through a committee made up 50 people, including seed producers, farmers and environmental NGOs. It’s when knowledge is shared that we are able to negotiate our way out of a deadlocked debate.

Have you ever felt pressure from industry groups defending their interests?

FB: I’ve worked at a biotech company, in a discussion forum and even as a philosopher, but have never been pressured. I have had numerous discussions, some of them very lively. With the industry, but also with NGOs and the government. Without disagreement, progress cannot be made! But I’ve never felt pressured like that, fortunately, because it would be all over the press the next day if it did happen anyway!

CN: Me neither. It would be useless anyway.

Does the subject stir the same kind of emotions it does in France in other parts of Europe?

FB: In the Netherlands, it is also a very emotional debate. And this is normal: we are talking about our food, the world we live in, about relations with multinationals and the United States. It really charges the emotions. At the moment we are having discussions about using insects as a food source: the reactions to this are very emotional as well. It’s the same with the environment: it’s a part of our everyday lives.

CN: The debate is an emotional one, yes. But the reactions are not irrational like it is sometimes claimed. In the GMO debate, there are real questions that are posed but not always properly answered, like the relationship between GMOs and organic produce. it’s a real question.

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WTO action against GMO-based decisions pose a real threat?

CN: Canada, Argentina, and the US attacked the moratorium on GMOs in Europe ten years ago through the WTO. That’s why we still need to be careful with any arguments that are put forward to ban the crops. Is it necessary for France to cite environmental or health risks when justifying a ban on transgenic corn? Or for other reasons related to consumers or culture? In any case, we have to prepare for the possibility of further proceedings being launched and broaden the range of factors being taken into account.

FB: In the Netherlands, the debate on international trade is a common one. For example, the trade in baby seal fur, hormones in meat, etc. If the reasons for pursuing a ban are seriously argued, there is no cause for concern.

Have you discussed the issue of free trade agreements, like TTIP, and their possible impact on the GMO debate?

FB: No, because we do not know what it consists of yet! Therefore, we can’t comment on it.

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