Plant breeding innovations can help to future proof our farming system

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

Von Essen: "Language and accusations are still exactly what they were in the late 1990s: “Frankenfoods” allegedly threatened the health and lives of millions and doomsday of our environment apparently was around the corner." [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

Reading the opinion of Greens / EFA members of the European Parliament on plant breeding, one can’t help but be amazed by their obsession with GMOs, writes Garlich von Essen.

Garlich von Essen is the secretary-general of the European Seed Association (ESA). He wrote this op-ed in reply to an opinion written recently by several Greens/EFA MEPs, entitled “New GMOs is not progress, but another tool of industrial farming“.

Language and accusations are still exactly what they were in the late 1990s: “Frankenfoods” allegedly threatened the health and lives of millions and doomsday of our environment apparently was around the corner. Well, none of that ever really happened, did it?

Regardless, it seems that warming-up that cold GMO soup, flavouring it with a bit of anti-corporate sentiment and allegations of shady, undue industry lobbying, will still deliver the odd vote on election day next May.

Let’s hope it won’t – and with that help finally lay the black-and-white thinking of good (organic) and evil (non-organic=GMO) agriculture to rest and start talking defined objectives and measurable criteria and deliverables.

Assessing the latest plant breeding methods, the opinion of the ECJ’s Advocate General actually does just that: taking a measured and differentiated view.

True, the latest plant breeding methods will not resolve all our problems with food production and environmental protection. But nobody actually promises that! They are simply new, more sophisticated tools that can help to address agricultural and with that breeding challenges in a quicker and a more targeted manner.

Simply speaking: you can cut people wide open with a broad blade to remove an infected appendix, or you can do it by minimum invasive micro-surgery. Faced with that alternative, my guess is we would probably all go for the latter option.

Where new tools and methods can help us to be more precise and achieve our goals better, allowing us to be more efficient, why should we not use them? Deeper scientific knowledge and more precise methods today allow us to get to our objectives faster. It’s called innovation. Or simply progress.

Two questions remain: what kind of progress we want to see, and how we can best bring it about.

There is actually broad consensus about the answer to the first: we need to do more with less. We need to produce more to feed 10 billion people. And we need to do it from less land, preserving or even improving soil quality, applying fewer inputs as e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, in a more environmentally sustainable manner.

None of this runs contrary to the objectives such as improving farm animal welfare, reducing food waste or promoting healthy and nutritious diets. We will need to be successful in both, production and consumption; and knowledge and cutting-edge production methods can help us to be.

So, how can we be successful? If we are clear on the desired result of a productive (food security), competitive (vibrant rural areas), diverse (multitude of crops and systems) and environmentally sound (sustainability) agri-food production for Europe, we should facilitate broad access to all those innovations that can help us moving forward and achieving results.

Drones, robots, vertical production systems, digitalisation – none of these technological developments are objectives on their own. They are tools to achieve objectives. The same is true for plant breeding innovations.

Assuring that access to these new tools is not unnecessarily hampered or even restricted will be key to really capitalise on another important aspect of the latest breeding methods: that they are relatively inexpensive and do not require big R&I infrastructure spending.

This will make it possible for the many highly innovative small and medium-sized enterprises, which are characteristic of Europe’s plant breeding sector, to use them also for all their smaller breeding programmes, for specialty crops and niche markets.

New knowledge, new methods, new products can help provide new opportunities – for plant breeders, farmers, for our environment and for healthy food for Europe’s consumers. Reviving the old GMO ghost from the scaremongering crypt isn’t supposed to help anything or anybody. It shall end the debate – instead of having it.

Subscribe to our newsletters