Is Europe Lost for GMOs?

The narrative of eco-activists, attacking modern agricultural biotechnology based on genetic engineering, is as unreliable as the campaigns of the opponents of global warming. It is based on demagoguery, ignoring data and a selective treatment of what science actually says.

Mark Lynas is a well-known and respected British journalist. In the 1990s, as a member of a radical organization of eco-activists Earth First!, he personally destroyed test crops of plants modified with genetic engineering, that is the notorious GMOs. He later became interested in the problem of global warming. His book on this subject, entitled Six Degrees (2008), was highly regarded by the academic community, receiving the prize of the Royal Society (the most prestigious British scientific society) for the best popular science publication.

Thanks to GMO crops, local agriculture has a chance to increase its productivity while reducing its negative impact on the natural environment and human health, mostly by scaling down the use of pesticides.

When researching global warming, Lynas encountered groups undermining the scientific consensus on the matter, namely people claiming that temperatures on the Earth were not rising and if they were, the rise was not caused by human activity (greenhouse gases’ emissions). Lynas had to consequently learn how to navigate within the confusion of conflicting information and distinguish reliable science from manipulated data. This also encouraged him to take a critical look at a claim which he had adamantly believed in for a long period of time: that GMO plants were dangerous and should be banned. Organizations of eco-activists such as Greenpeace had been persuading the public for years that GMOs posed a great threat to humanity. Lynas was very much surprised to discover that their narrative, attacking modern agricultural biotechnology based on genetic engineering, was as unreliable as the campaigns of the opponents of global warming. It was based on demagoguery, ignoring data and a selective treatment of what science actually said.

Politicians from EU countries succumbed to pressure and in 1999 introduced an informal moratorium on the cultivation and import of GMO plants from North and South America.

The flourishing of anti-scientific populism

The British journalist diametrically changed his views on GMO crops and publicly apologized in 2013 for what he had been doing in the 1990s. He currently participates in campaigns supporting the use of modern agricultural biotechnology in developing countries, primarily in Africa and Asia. Thanks to GMO crops, local agriculture has a chance to increase its productivity while reducing its negative impact on the natural environment and human health, mostly by scaling down the use of pesticides. Small farmers can increase their revenues, helping them emerge from extreme poverty.

Mark Lynas is undoubtedly a person whose opinions on biotechnological issues are worth listening to. And for some time the British journalist has voiced a controversial—at least at first sight—claim that in the area of using GMO plants the European Union is “a lost, dark continent where anti-scientific populism flourishes”. As he told me in the fall of last year, “because we are wealthy and have a lot of food, this irrational attitude towards agricultural biotechnology mostly irritates, but in Africa or Asia it is a matter of life and death”.

This is a very harsh, but rather accurate assessment, especially in the context of the verdict passed in late July 2018 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which effectively puts a stop to the development of modern agricultural biotechnology in Europe. Before presenting, however, the essence and consequences of this verdict, we should go back to the mid-1990s in order to understand why the European Union declared war on GMOs.

Ideological, not scientific arguments

This was a time when plants with new features, acquired with the help of genetic engineering, began to grow in the fields of Northern American farmers. These were mostly soya and corn with individual bacteria genes copied. This made soya resistant to the not particularly toxic herbicide glyphosate, which meant great advantages for farmers. They could give up deep plowing, which depletes the soil. As for corn, it became capable—also thanks to a gene copied from bacteria—of defending itself against the most dangerous pests and did not need to be sprayed with insecticides any longer.

The cultivation of corn with such a feature was approved in the European Union in the late 1990s. During that same period activist groups in the US and then Europe (headed by Greenpeace) launched a campaign against GMO plants, counterfactually accusing them of damaging the natural environment as well as human and animal health, and being an instrument of dominating food production by biotechnological corporations. In actuality the original reason for waging war on GMOs was a protest of eco-activists against “breaking the natural barriers between species”, which was supposedly done by way of transferring genes between evolutionarily distant organisms (for example, from bacteria to corn).

This process, known to science as “horizontal transfer of genes”, has actually been occurring in nature of its own accord for ages. In addition, humans have been modifying plants genetically—not through transferring genes from one plant to another, but through various less precise methods (selection, crossbreeding, generating random mutations with the use of irradiation)—for more than 10,000 years. There is no plant growing in farmers’ fields which can be found in the wild. Corn, for example, does not look in the least like its predecessor, that is wild-growing teosinte grass, from which it differs in appearance, size and the chemical composition of the grains. The arguments of opponents of GMOs were thus purely ideological rather than scientific.

The strong pressure of public opinion

Nevertheless, politicians from EU countries succumbed to pressure and in 1999 introduced an informal moratorium on the cultivation and import of GMO plants from North and South America. It was lifted four years later after losing a case brought to the World Trade Organization, where Europeans were unable to present reliable scientific evidence for the claim that GMO plants posed a greater threat to human health and to the natural environment than conventional varieties.

European politicians, still under strong pressure from eco-activists and public opinion, were still not willing to capitulate. The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) was established with the task of assessing (the institution consists of scientific experts) if a given GMO plant was safe for people, animals and the environment. This process was quite complicated and costly, which immediately excluded small biotechnological companies from the market, leaving the field open only for corporations capable of paying 35 million dollars for an opinion on just one plant. Moreover, a positive EFSA decision did not guarantee anything, for the final approval had to be issued by politicians in Brussels.

To cut a long story short, representatives of EU member states took a vote and if the necessary majority for approval or a ban on a given crop was not reached, the decision was passed on to the European Commission. The Commission was and still is ready and willing allow the import of such plants, for EU countries buy a number of them (mostly soya for animal feed, which is cheaper than conventional feed), but blocked issuing crop permits. The impact today is that European farmers may use only one GMO crop: corn with the MON810 feature, which is capable of defending itself against pests and does not require spraying. Even this, however, is not allowed in every EU country. The individual member states were given the right to ban a given GMO crop for any reason in 2015 (for example, because we do not like it). Certain countries took advantage of this opportunity (among them Italy, Hungary, France, Germany, Austria and Poland), and now MON810 corn is only grown in two countries (data for 2017): Spain (124 thousand hectares) and Portugal (seven point 3000 hectares).

Institutional ping-pong

The complex system of GMO authorization in the EU is well illustrated by the story of maize 1507, resistant to glyphosate and producing bacterial proteins which make it resistant to insects. It had been grown by the Pioneer/ DuPont Co, which led an application for allowing its cultivation in the EU back in 2001. The moratorium on GMO plants was then in force. In 2005 the EFSA issued a positive opinion: maize 1507 was found to be safe for the environment, animals and people. In accordance with the procedure, the opinion found its way to Brussels, only for certain countries opposing GMOs to voice their objections. The European Commission again referred the matter to the EFSA in 2006, which again issued a positive opinion.

In summary, the complex European regulations on GMO crops were constructed in such a way as to effectively block the practical use of these varieties by farmers.

This ping-pong lasted for several more years and maize 1507 was assessed seven times in all, always receiving the green light from the EFSA experts. According to EU rules, the final European Commission decision should be issued within a maximum of five months after obtaining documents from the EFSA. This did not happen, however. In 2010 Pioneer/DuPont led a complaint with the Court of Justice of the European Union. Finally, three years later the court sided with the company, stating that the authorization process for maize 1507 was unlawfully protracted. Only then did the second vote by representatives of EU member states take place. Once again a qualified majority for or against was not reached. The buck was once again passed on to the European Commission, while Pioneer/DuPont was still waiting for the decision. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in the meantime calling on countries to forbid the cultivation of maize 1507, for according to certain deputies the long-term impact of the plant on non-target organisms (that is other than pests) had not been sufficiently taken into account. This entire story looks quite absurd in view of the fact that maize 1507 had been sown since 2001 in the US, to give just one example, and no negative impact on the environment or humans had been observed.

European laboratories are being moved across the Atlantic

In summary, the complex European regulations on GMO crops were constructed in such a way as to effectively block the practical use of these varieties by farmers. Biotechnological companies consequently stopped applying for crop permits and their European laboratories are being moved across the Atlantic.

Scientists have meanwhile developed new plant breeding techniques. One of them, RISPR/Cas9, uses the immunological systems of bacteria and other organisms which protect them against attacks of viruses, slashing their genetic material in precisely defined places. Several years ago scientists succeeded in using this system as an instrument for a precise gene edition in plants and animals. It can be used, for example, to cut the DNA strand in a designated place, only for the cell repair mechanisms to glue it back together.

This can serve to influence the operations of these mechanisms. When repairing such a cut, the cell introduces the change desired by the experimenter. This method is called gene editing, for it resembles the work of an editor correcting typos in a text. You can also remove a designated fragment of DNA, like an editor deleting words from a sentence. CRISPR/Cas9 also makes it possible to damage a certain gene, thereby turning it off, or changing it into a different variety. It is not possible (at least thus far) to introduce something which was not previously present in the plant or animal’s DNA. This can once again be compared to editing a text: you can delete a word, but you cannot add an entire sentence to an article or a chapter to a book.

The dispute over the question as to whether these new plant breeding techniques are GMO or non-GMO finally found itself before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

These kinds of methods should not raise concerns of eco-activists, for they are not used for copying genes between evolutionarily distant organisms. Organizations such as Greenpeace, however, have protested against excluding plants modified with CRISPR/Cas9 or other gene editing techniques from the rigorous GMO regulations.

Is European agriculture turning into a museum?

The dispute over the question as to whether these new plant breeding techniques are GMO or non-GMO finally found itself before the Court of Justice of the European Union, which finally ruled, against the previously published position of its spokesperson, that the new methods fall under the stringent GMO regulations. This means that in practice no plant produced with the use of, for example, CRISPR/Cas9, will be authorized for cultivation in the EU.

Eco-activists welcomed the decision of the CJEU, while scientists and plan breeders assessed it as disastrous for the future of agricultural biotechnology in Europe. The European Plant Science Organization (EPSO), for example, bringing together 220 scientific institutions from 31 countries, said in a statement that GMO regulations in their current form hamper research and innovation in agriculture aimed at acquiring crops which would be safer for consumers and would allow farmers to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

So how will the situation develop for agricultural biotechnology in Europe? First, everything could stay the same, and European agriculture would increasingly turn into a museum in the negative sense of the word. Second, some countries (such as Sweden, which already some time ago decided that CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing techniques are not GMO) will place political pressure on Brussels to initiate a change in regulations. A possible compromise would be that the EFSA would keep approving crop varieties produced with the use of CRISPR/Cas9, but once it gave them the green light, it would be up to particular countries to decide if they allowed the cultivation of such a modified plant within their territory. The third possibility is that the regulations will be changed in such a way as to exclude new plant breeding techniques from the GMO strictures.

There is also a fourth scenario, involving a complete change in the European Union’s “philosophy” with regard to genetic modification of plants. It will no longer matter what method was used to modify a given plant, the important thing will be what new feature or features were introduced. Is this specific variety safe for humans, animals and the environment? To use a culinary comparison, it does not matter if you whip cream with a whisk or a mixer, the important thing is whether the result is tasty and well whipped.

For the time being, however, the last, most rational, scenario stands no chance. This serves to confirm the pessimistic diagnosis of Mark Lynas: for now, we are a dark continent plunging into anti-scientific populism.

Marcin Rotkiewicz

scientific editor of the Polityka weekly, is a scholarship holder of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He promotes knowledge primarily on the subject of biotechnology, human evolution and neuroscience. He is the author of the book “W królestwie Monszatana”, nominated for the Wise Book Prize 2017 awarded by Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the Euclid Foundation for the Promotion of Science.

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