Over-regulating gene editing slows down innovation, Bayer says

The new company accounts, pro forma, €20 billion from sales and has a R&D budget of €2 billion, engaging 8,000 scientists. [Gerardo Fortuna]

This article is part of our special report A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food.

An extensive regulatory process on gene editing adds more bureaucracy, increasing costs and slowing down innovation, Liam Condon, President of Bayer’s crop science division told EURACTIV.com.

Speaking on the sidelines of the company’s first major event after the merger with Monsanto in Monheim (18 September), Condon commented on the EU Court of justice’s recent ruling that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

Industry shocked by EU Court decision to put gene editing technique under GM law

The European Court of Justice ruled on 25 July that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, in a surprising move that went contrary to the Advocate-General’s non-binding opinion.

“I do think it slows down innovation in Europe and this will not only relate to agriculture but also to human medicines. But first and foremost, discussion right now is about agriculture,” Condon said.

According to Condon, small and medium-size breeding companies will not be able to afford the development of products using gene editing due to the extensive regulatory process that makes the efforts too expensive.

“This actually helps big companies who can afford to spend money on R&D but it prolongs in any case registration, making everything much more expensive,” he said.

Bayer’s executive also stressed that these added costs did not make the product safer, which is the real objective of the legislation. “Legislation wants to ensure that consumers have safe food, that would be ensured anyway. This process just adds on additional at the end of the day more bureaucracy and cost,” he emphasised.

For Bob Reiter, former Monsanto Vice-president and now Global Head of R&D at Bayer Crop Science division, the decision was a “tremendous disappointment”, and now the company is looking in how it could do to potentially influence this decision.

“The thing is that we cannot use the technology which basically does nothing but creates things that we already have in nature,” he added.

Glyphosate and CAP

Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto attracted some criticism for the risk to its reputation of merging with the firm behind Roundup, the controversial glyphosate-based weed killer.

A landmark San Francisco trial in August ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a plaintiff who had sued the company saying he had cancer because of his exposure to the herbicide. Hundreds of lawsuits are pending in US courts.

Condon told the press that Bayer inherited from Monsanto insurance standard’s litigation products that will protect the company for the next trials in the US. At the same time, he stressed, “There is no change in regulatory status anywhere in the world and there are no new scientific findings or facts [on glyphosate].”

“All regulatory approvals remain completely intact and growers everywhere continue to have full access to glyphosate,” he added.

He commented positively on the recent Brazilian court ruling which overturns an injunction having suspended registration of glyphosate in the country, saying that “the reactions of both associations and Brazilian agricultural ministry explains how important glyphosate is for growers.”

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals, he replied, “We would expect a stronger emphasis on environmental sustainability overall, and in that context precision farming will play a key role.”

“So, I think that new policies like CAP will go more and more in that direction which is a good thing,” he said.

A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food

The discussion about food policies in Europe is often heated up and quite frequently politicised. The right balance between science, politics and policy-making has always been difficult to achieve.

Populism and emotions

Referring to the ongoing debate on restoring confidence with the people, he said there was a sense amongst the general public that innovation and food, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

“Particularly when it comes to the food industry, as the products marketed with the ‘free from’ label showed: there’s no real scientific basis but it’s appealing because it gives the sense that it’s really natural.”

Asked by EURACTIV if it is difficult to deal with a public debate led by emotions, rather than scientific findings he said, “It’s easier to be a populist with the emotions.”

He noted that science required a real understating of complex issues and notions, which makes it, however, difficult to win an argument purely from a scientific point of view. The best is a combination of science and emotion.

Sustainability is viewed as a way to overcome criticism, as “some practices that are being proclaimed as alternatives to use in science and innovation are from a sustainability point of view actually not sustainable.”

“Bayer has a huge commitment to raise the bar from a sustainability point of view. Our sustainability targets going to be tracked as rigidly as our financial target,” Condon said.

In this context, he explained, the role of smallholders it’s going to play an extremely important role. “We are the biggest agricultural company in the world and the vast majority of the farmers are smallholders. The type of solutions that smallholders require are very different than solutions big companies require and we have to give a special attention to their needs.”

The dialogue Bayer wants to establish is not only with the public, Condon said, adding that the new company is “in a listening mood also with the customers”.

“We’re not just telling our customers, this is what we going to do, but we’re asking them what they expect from us,” he concluded.

EFSA boss: Our advice should not be misused for short-term political interests

The selective approach of some campaign groups regarding the credibility of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) results in a “general erosion of trust” in the bodies designed to protect public health, EFSA director Bernhard Url told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

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