Anti-GMO groups rush to block EU farmers’ access to genetically modified crops in the name of sustainable agriculture
These groups are launching the same game again in Europe, with the aim of ending the easing of restrictions on genetically modified crops, developed with new breeding techniques (NBT) like CRISPR-Cas9.
Farmers and scientists generally view these advances in plant breeding favorably, noting that they can help further reduce pesticide use, add nutrients to staple foods, and improve crop yields, among dozens of other important advantages. Some experts even predict that NBTs could spark another green revolution in agriculture. Watching these developments unfold, the European Union (EU), while traditionally deeply skeptical of crop biotechnology, is warming towards genetically modified crops and may revise its regulations in the very near future. A study sponsored by the European Commission on the risks and benefits of gene editing in cultures [was published on April 29].
But there is an additional layer of complexity. Although the EU is flirting with smarter rules for editing crop genes, it has already demanded, through its Green Deal and Farm-2-Fork policies, that 25% of its farmland be converted to organic production and that farmers reduce their use of synthetic pesticides by 50%. %. The continent’s politically powerful anti-GMO groups have used this new commitment to organic farming to block the introduction of genetically modified crops into the EU. The Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), for example, recently stated that:
With the European Green Deal and the farm-to-fork strategy, the Von der Leyen Commission is committed to moving away from industrial agriculture as we know it today…. This creates an existential crisis for dominant companies in both the pesticide market and the commercial seed market, including Bayer, BASF, Corteva (DowDupont) and Syngenta (ChemChina).
As we will see, this is, at best, lying by omission. The seed giants, of course, see a great opportunity if the EU reverses its gene editing rules – but so do public universities and small plant breeding companies, all of which are beholden to farmers – the customers who actually buy their products. In addition, there is strong evidence that gene editing is perfectly compatible with the goals of organic farming, and therefore can help Europe achieve its sustainability goals, a fact already recognized by some officials in the EU.
A corporate ploy?
The claim that ‘Big Ag’ is trying to deregulate the market for genetically modified seeds in Europe only because it is [its] profits from the sale of pesticides ”paints a woefully inadequate picture. Yes, Bayer has been hit hard by the multi-billion dollar lawsuits alleging its glyphosate (Roundup) weedkiller causes cancer. And yes, selling genetically modified seeds in a tightly restricted market (the EU only commercially cultivates one biotech crop) would be a boon for the giants of the industry. But they’re not the only ones benefiting, and there’s a good reason for that.
The selection of genetically modified plants is a quick and inexpensive process compared to the development of transgenic (GMO) crops. Any business or university, large or small, with the appropriate expertise can use NBTs to create the products farmers want. Far from giving Bayer and other seed giants more control over EU agriculture, less stringent rules for genetic modification would actually facilitate more competition for established companies. As Petra Jorasch, a molecular plant biologist, noted in an article published in February for the GLP:
Contrary to the claim of some environmental groups that genome editing“Offers new avenues of control by modifying specific characteristics of plants, in particular resistance to insects and herbicides”, industrial applications of this so are only one aspect of NBT research, and a minor aspect to that.
Our recent poll of 62 private plant breeding companies, 90% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), confirms that EU plant breeders are able and willing to use these technologies to develop a wide range of species and crop traits for farmers. Of vine at wheat, NBTs can generate innovation to protect traditional European crops from pests and diseases and other threats posed by climate change.
It is a well-known phenomenon in economics. Implementing tighter and tighter regulations increases the cost of complying with those regulations, in many cases high enough to push startups and small businesses away from any market. This is one of the reasons why only a few companies dominate the production of transgenic seeds. It is estimated that it takes 8 to 13 years and $ 135 million to bring a transgenic crop to market; large companies are the only institutions capable of absorbing such an astronomical expenditure. But that dynamic is changing in jurisdictions where regulators take a hands-on approach to cultures developed through NBTs.
Jorasch pointed out that a similar trend could take off in Europe if the continent changes its rules for genetically modified cultivation. EU companies that have either halted their research on NBTs or reoriented their activities to other countries would revert to developing genetically modified products for the European market if allowed to do so. “Uncertainty and irreversibility have had a chilling effect on NBT research,” she wrote “denying consumers and farmers products that could improve their lives and contribute to more sustainable food systems. .
Opposition from the organic industry
Ironically, this may be the real reason why the organic industry and its lobby groups are so adamantly opposed to the introduction of NBTs, in Europe or elsewhere. CRISPR-improved seeds that help farmers grow crops more sustainably or that attract consumers, for example grains with more protein and less carbohydrate, will make it very difficult for existing organic interests to justify the price premium on their products verified by the non-GMO project.
This is of particular concern to European activist groups, as it is increasingly clear that NBTs can help farmers, including organic producers, do their jobs while harming the environment, thereby building capacity. of the EU to achieve its sustainability goals. According to an article just published in Trends in Plant Science, examples of gene editing features include:
- Growing crops while applying fewer and less toxic pesticides: “Genome editing approaches could have a rapid positive impact on resistance to pests and diseases in cultivated plants without negative environmental and health externalities….”
- Increase in crop diversity: gene editing “will allow rapid improvement of orphan crops and thus increase crop diversity.” The de novo domestication of wild species through genome editing has already been demonstrated. “
- Selection of crop varieties with multiple desirable traits:
Combining favorable alleles into a genotype is a huge and often insurmountable challenge with conventional breeding methods alone. For example, a close genetic linkage results in the simultaneous selection of a favorable allele and a neighboring disadvantageous allele such as the Lr67sus disease susceptibility allele in wheat that is found next to the semi-dwarf RhtD1b allele. , a major contributor to increasing wheat yields in the past. 60 years.
With gene editing tools, the precise introduction of basic modifications can be applied to break this “binding trail” and combine the resistance allele with the semi-dwarf allele.
Returning to our starting point, Corporate Europe Observatory will continue to boast of its efforts to expose “various new tactics used by the biotech industry to pave the way for such deregulation”. But the nebulous allegations of wrongdoing by the group’s companies should not distract from the economic and environmental benefits Europe could reap if it embraces crop gene editing, a sentiment nicely expressed by Director Urs Niggli. from the Swiss Institute for Organic Agriculture Research:
CRISPR / CAS has great potential. Like any technology, it carries risks and can be misused. Rather, you should evaluate each application individually. [of] rejecting this technology in general… You can turn off disease susceptibility genes or insert resistance genes from related wild plants…. in modern varieties. These are properties that have been lost largely through breeding for yield or quality over the past hundred years.
Cameron J. English is the Director of Biological Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish