Europe’s anti-rationalist future?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Are EU restrictions and bans putting scientific progress at risk? [Shutterstock]

European restrictions on gene editing, GMOs and pesticides bans risk undermining scientific progress and innovation if they are not reversed, argues Sir Colin Berry.

Sir Colin Berry is emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary, University of London. 

Is Europe, home of the Enlightenment, turning its back on reason and science? Recent decisions by Europe’s regulators, judges, and politicians suggest that the answer is ‘Yes’.

From the Court of Justice of the European Union’s “precautionary” ruling on gene edited plants to continuing bans on GMOs, to draconian regulations on crop protection products that could make it impossible to farm productively, science has taken a back-seat and innovations are routinely discarded in the name of a pre-modern past.

Recently, some 75 European plant and life sciences research centres, including the UK’s John Innes Centre, issued a call to European policymakers to reverse the Court’s effective ban on new gene edited plants. The result of this ban will be to kill innovation and bring the most promising breakthroughs in plant development in decades to a halt, they said.

A few days later, thirteen nations at the World Trade Organisation issued a statement – seemingly directed at the EU – calling on nations to apply “science and risk-based approaches” to regulating gene editing technology.

New techniques like CRISPR are miracles of modern science. They allow researchers to alter very specific stretches of DNA to evoke desirable traits or to suppress less desirable ones. They create mushrooms that don’t brown, rice that is healthier for diabetics and oils with more omega 3 fatty acids. Potentially, they could remove the allergens from peanuts or make wheat safe for people with gluten intolerant Celiac’s disease.

By any scientific standard, gene editing is more precise – and so safer — than older, commonly used methods of producing plant innovations, such as blasting seeds with radiation or soaking them in chemical baths; these are currently acceptable techniques for scrambling DNA, hoping that a positive trait emerges [the durum wheat in many Italian pastas was created this way].

To the consternation of the scientific community, however, the Court decided to rope these promising innovations into the EU’s GMO regulatory scheme, which effectively bans them in Europe, while exempting plant varieties created through radiation and chemical mutagenesis. The reason for exempting the latter? They have a history of safe use, the court said.

Yet exactly the same thing could be said of standard genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which differ from gene editing only by importing DNA from other plants. Despite decades of fear-mongering about theoretical risks, GMOs, too, have a well-documented history of safe use.

In their 20 years on the market, not one illness or even upset stomach has been reliably attributed to them. Every reputable scientific body and major regulatory agency in the world – including those in Europe– has found them as safe as non-GMO foods.

Should the Court ruling stand, Europe will not just be losing the science but also many of its best scientists.  Why stay toiling in EU laboratories when the authorities have as much as guaranteed that your innovations will never see the light of day?

The gene-editing ban is not unique. Equally unscientific are the EU’s wholesale bans on many classes of pesticides. Based on “hazard” designations that purposefully ignore exposure, the actual risk of a substance ever producing an adverse effect is ignored.

The basic truth of toxicological science is that absolutely everything presents a “hazard” at a high enough dose, even water or oxygen, and at a low enough dose, nothing does. As toxicologists put it, “the dose determines the poison”. Only ‘risk’ or degree of exposure matters, a fact reflected in the regulatory decisions of other advanced nations and even the World Trade Organization, which rejects the EU’s position as non-scientific.

The effect of these nonsensical bans will extend far beyond Europe, as crops imported from other countries that have the most infinitesimal residues of these chemicals will also be banned. By some estimates, €70 billion worth of agricultural products – almost two-thirds of all European imports – will be blocked.

Developing nations, particularly in Africa, will be hardest hit as their farmers will have to choose between losing their biggest export market or leaving their crops vulnerable to pest devastation.

Many believe that we will be better off in a world without all this science. We can retreat, they insist, to that pristine past of crops grown organically, and food that was “natural.” That was also a world, we should remember, of stunted life expectancy, devastating diseases, low-yield agriculture and frequent famine.

Our leaders must recognise that the technologies sustaining our civilization depend on advanced science and innovation, and they should stop using ‘precaution’ as an excuse to always say no. Ten billion people will soon inhabit this planet and we need to figure out a way to feed them all.

Europe, modern science’s birthplace, should be a part of finding a solution to that challenge. Right now, however, Europe is becoming an ever-greater part of the problem.

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