Genetically modified crops: Time to move on from theological dispute

Genetically modified crops: Time to move on from theological dispute

Stephen Tindale
30 January 2015

One month after taking office, the Juncker Commission reached an agreement with the European Council and the European Parliament on an issue which had complicated life for both Barroso Commissions: genetically modified (GM) crops. Under this agreement, the Commission will continue to have the regulatory role of deciding, on scientific advice, whether a GM crop is safe to be grown anywhere in the EU. National governments will then be allowed to choose, on non-scientific grounds, whether to allow that crop in their country. This is a scientifically sound and politically pragmatic agreement, which should now be implemented without further argument.

MEPs voted overwhelmingly to accept this agreement on January 12th. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, had opposed GM crops when Polish prime minister, but must now cast his own views aside and encourage the Council of Ministers to respect the agreement. It should not waste more time on a theological dispute about genetic modification: arguments about GM crops have been clogging up European institutions for the last 15 years.

GM technology should not be supported or opposed per se. There are good GM crops and bad GM crops, just as there are good chemicals and bad chemicals. New agricultural technology is necessary. As the world’s climate warms, there will be changes in rainfall patterns and more droughts. With the global population expected increase to over 10 billion by 2100, more food will be needed. Genetic modification can make crops more drought-resistant. It can also make crops pest-resistant. So the technology can reduce the need for pesticides, protects wildlife and reduces the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions by cutting the use of chemicals. GM can also increase crop yield per hectare, making it easier to feed a growing population without cutting down the remaining forests. And GM can be used to breed plants which are more nutritious, thus reducing disease.

On the downside, GM can also produce crops which are able to grow with more pesticide being sprayed on them without being damaged. This trait is less desirable than pest resistance because it might lead to greater use of pesticide: farmers would not need to worry about the chemicals damaging the crops. Increased pesticide use is of benefit to the agrochemical industry but not necessarily to wider society, and certainly not to wildlife. GM crops should be treated as a series of proposed technological changes, to be assessed and regulated on a case-by-case basis.

An example of a bad GM technology was the 1990s development by Monsanto, and other companies including AstraZeneca and Novartis, of seeds with ‘terminator technology’ inserted into their genes. Instead of producing new seeds each year, the crops were sterile, so that farmers would have to buy new seed. This would have damaged farmers in developing countries, and outweighed the benefits of higher yields. And a lack of genuine competition in the seed market could have meant that non-sterile seeds were not available to some farmers. Following extensive campaigning by green groups in the US and Europe, Monsanto announced in 1999 that it would not commercialise any crop with terminator technology.

An example of a good GM technology is ‘Golden Rice’ – rice which provides those who eat it with additional vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of disease, resulting in up to 2 million deaths a year. It also damages eyesight, causing half a million children a year to go blind every year. The development of Golden Rice has been funded by the Rockefeller Foundation for the last two decades.

A number of patented technologies have been used in developing Golden Rice, but the lead company Syngenta negotiated with other involved firms (including Bayer, Monsanto and Zeneca Mogen), to allow plant breeding institutions in developing countries to use Golden Rice free of charge.

GM crops have been widely grown in many countries around the world for years, but in Europe only five member-states have any commercial GM agriculture. Spain has the most: about a fifth of its maize is GM. GM crops are also grown in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Portugal and Romania. Nine countries – Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg and Poland – ban GM crops. The other member-states do not have national policies preventing GM agriculture, but there are no GM crops grown, mainly because of public opposition. The British government would like to have GM crops grown commercially in the UK, but public opinion has so far won the argument against them.

National bans are illegal under European law. At the height of the GM controversy, when public opposition to the technology made the planting of any GM crops in Europe seem unlikely, member-states agreed to a directive on the release of GM material into the environment (in 2001) and a regulation on GM food (in 2003). These give regulatory control over GM crops to the Commission, which must base its decisions on the scientific advice of a separate, non-political agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). A national government is allowed to operate a temporary moratorium if it believes that the EFSA has overlooked some relevant scientific information. This government must then submit its evidence to the EFSA. Several governments have done this, but each time the EFSA has rejected the appeal. The member-state is then supposed to lift the moratorium. None has done so. The Commission has tried to put pressure on national governments – notably France, Germany and Poland – to permit planting, but without much success. In November 2012, after the Polish senate had lifted a ban on GM cultivation (at the behest of the Commission), Prime Minister Tusk said that he would reverse this decision.

In 2010 the Commission proposed a sensible compromise: it would remain responsible for deciding whether particular GM crops were safe, based on scientific advice. But member-states would then be allowed to operate national bans on non-scientific, political or ethical grounds. The Council did not agree to this: a majority of governments supported the proposal but a minority of anti-GM countries blocked it, even though it would have made their bans legal, because they wanted to achieve a Europe-wide end to all GM planting. In his statement to MEPs at his confirmation hearing in July 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker said that the political views of elected governments on GM should have the same weight as scientific advice in regulatory decision-making. Then on December 3rd, the Commission reached agreement with the Parliament and the Council to follow the approach which the Commission had proposed in 2010. This will lead to some countries, such as the UK, planting GM crops commercially for the first time, while Germany, France, Poland and other anti-GM countries will be allowed to retain their bans.

Have GMOs been proven to be safe? No. That is not how science works; nothing is ever definitively settled and more discoveries are always possible. Is there enough evidence that GMOs are safe to permit their release into the environment? Yes – if the benefits of the crops are sufficient to justify the inevitable risk that accompanies the release of new organisms into the environment.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) published a wide-ranging assessment of genetic modification in 2013. This states that: “There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding.” GM opponents argue that the risk of releasing new forms of life is so great that it should always be avoided, and often invoke “the precautionary principle”. However, the EU’s definition of this states that scientific evaluations of proposed new technologies should include both “a risk evaluation and an evaluation of the potential consequences of inaction”. The EASAC report says that: “There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy.” So the risk of action is small; the risk of inaction is large.

December’s agreement gives the EU a sensible case-by-case approach to GM regulation. This balances science and politics, as well as the single market and concerns over national sovereignty. A single market in agricultural goods requires that one member-state does not exclude produce from another country because it contains GM. Member-states have harmonised standards for GM produce since 2003. So Germany or France cannot ban maize from Spain because it is GM. They can now choose not to allow GM crops to be grown on their territory, and do not need scientific justification for this ban. As the Commission’s former chief scientific adviser, Professor Anne Glover, said at a CER event in July 2014, there may be economic or social reasons why a government chooses to ban GM crops. The fact that science says a crop is safe does not mean that countries should be forced to grow it.

Now it is up to national governments to agree to disagree on GM crops. The British, Czech, Spanish and Portuguese governments should stop pressing for more countries to allow GM cultivation, and the Austrian, French and German governments should stop trying to prevent any cultivation anywhere in Europe.

For its part, the EU needs to move on from a narrow focus on GM crops, and address wider issues of how to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable, as well as better able to withstand climate change and feed a growing global population.

Stephen Tindale is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. He spent six years as executive director of Greenpeace UK, which opposes GM crops. However, he has always thought that GM technology should be assessed case-by-case. He minimised campaigning on GM – never authorising direct actions against GM during his time in charge – and told Greenpeace’s campaigners to focus instead on how to make agriculture less environmentally-damaging.