Senselessly shunning science: the EU Parliament’s GMO dilemma

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

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The recently elected European Parliament should bring a ray of hope. Hope that Europe will rise to tackle global challenges like climate change and food insecurity. [MJ Graphics / Shutterstock]

Europe seems increasingly ready to face the challenges of the 21st century and to lead the way to a ‘greener’ and more sustainable future.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new EU Commission’s aspirations to deliver a “Green Deal” and a “Farm to Fork Strategy” that aims to secure Europe’s access to safe, affordable, nutritious, and, importantly, sustainable food for the future.  But what role can the EU Parliament play in the face of recent unsubstantiated “objections” against GMOs?

Beat Späth is director for agricultural biotechnology at EuropaBio.

The European Academies of Science have said: “There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy.”[1] Furthermore, a Food and Agriculture Organization report from 2016[2] confirms that agricultural biotechnologies can help small producers to be more resilient and adapt to climate change. But Europeans, including some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), are nevertheless mired in distrust. Distrust of GMOs, distrust of EU bodies entrusted with their assessment, and distrust of science more generally.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Commission, and more than 280 scientific and technical institutions around the world[3] have all declared that genetically modified crops (GMOs) are at least as safe as conventionally bred crops. Moreover, almost 25 years of their commercialisation has shown that GMOs also can and do provide a multitude of benefits. They do so quite simply by allowing farmers to grow more food and fibre using fewer resources, like water, land, and energy, than conventional or even organic crops. This allows farmers who choose GM crops, where farm conditions call for their use, to preserve surrounding biodiversity and better mitigate against climate change. The benefits are well documented, even within Europe, despite very limited GMO cultivation on this continent. Over the past 21 years, GM maize in Spain has been proven to increase yields[4], making Spain less reliant on maize imports. Similar achievements were experienced in Romania between 1999 and 2006, before GM soya beans were banned in Romania as a result of EU accession.[5]

The recently elected European Parliament (EP) should bring with it a ray of hope. Hope that Europe will rise to the occasion, to tackle global challenges like climate change and food insecurity. And GMOs – and biotechnology more generally – can and should be part of the solution. Unfortunately, following a change of more than 60% of MEPs in the Parliament, EP objections to GMOs, which began several years ago, have continued, with some MEPs blaming GMOs for many of the global challenges we face today.

The evidence shows that growing GMOs has led to a reduction in agricultural chemical use of 37% overall, and much more when it comes to insect resistant GM crops.[6] And their use has greatly increased farm and environmental safety, for example by significantly reducing suicide rates and pesticide poisoning on smallholder farms in the developing world[7].

Furthermore, the increased yields per hectare associated with GMOs spares pressure on surrounding lands, including rainforests. As long as any agricultural crops are grown, whether for animal feed or for direct human consumption, it makes sense to grow crops efficiently to help avoid additional land conversion. A recent ISAAA report[8] shows that between 1996 and 2016, biotech crops saved 183 million hectares of land, and 22.5 million hectares of land in 2016 alone, thereby conserving biodiversity and reducing CO2 emissions. In 2016, emissions savings equaled 27.1 billion kg, equivalent to taking 16.7 million cars off the road for one year.

Already today, the reality in Europe is that most people wear GM cotton, and eat a variety of food products that were produced with the help of biotechnology, including GMOs. In addition to the many benefits that Europeans receive each day, farmers in other parts of the world are empowered by biotechnology, including millions of smallholder farmers in Asia who are growing GM crops. Although historically, GMOs have been used to produce soy, maize and rapeseed often used in animal feed, GMOs are already now also being used to improve the health and nutrition of crops for human consumption, to prevent food waste, and to make crops more resistant to drought and disease.

So why isn’t anyone discussing the benefits of GMOs?

The fact is that whilst the EU Parliament is partially implicated in accepting the disinformation campaigns of a few anti-GMO activists, EU member states have also fallen short in their responsibilities. Countries including Germany, France, Italy and Poland have not voted in favour of the approval of safe GMO products even for import, even though their economies do already benefit from them and could further. This voting behaviour, combined with lack of support in the Parliament and a general failure of EU institutions to counter disinformation on GMOs, is the main reason why Europe has effectively expelled agricultural innovation in this field, all the while undermining trust in the EU’s food safety assessment procedures. A Court of Justice of the EU ruling from July 2018 equating genome edited products with GMOs only adds further to this unsustainable predicament.

While Europe may, to some extent, be able to afford – temporarily – to say goodbye to science and technology, it is irresponsible and unfair to demonise GMOs and keep the developing world from using these products. In times like these, there is a need for political leadership to stand up for science and support the scientific opinions of the EU’s agencies responsible for assessing GMO safety. The European Parliament should now set a new direction for innovation in agriculture, including by supporting the approval of safe GM products in accordance with evidence and democratically adopted procedures.

It is time for a new generation of EU decision makers to harness the full potential of GMOs for the benefit of people and planet.  EuropaBio, representing the biotechnology industry, is committed to  communicating these benefits. We urge all decision makers who think science can and must play a positive role in society to read our agricultural biotechnology manifesto and join us on this mission.

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