Why the European Union needs to grow genetically-engineered crops
Steven E. Cerier
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
International economist Steven E. Cerier describes how global innovation in plant breeding is already paving the way for higher yielding, more nutritious crops that can limit disease, reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and adapt to greater weather extremes. The EU cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and not participate in this revolution. It is already placing its farmers at a competitive disadvantage, limiting consumer choice, and prompting scientists to depart for countries that are embracing these new genetic engineering techniques, he warns.
The United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, and India are among the growing number of countries that have deregulated or have decided not to regulate CRISPR gene-edited plants and other new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs).
That’s paving the way for farmers to introduce a host of more sustainable crops that can limit disease, reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and adapt to drought and flooding. Scientists are also finding ways to increase yields and grow more nutritious crops. Some of those countries are also moving to deregulate the gene editing of animals to prevent diseases, but progress in that area is slower.
In late March, England decided to join other countries in adopting NPBTs when Parliament approved gene-editing for plants and animals. The precision breeding legislation does not apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whose restrictions on gene-editing remain as severe as those in the EU - regulations that will hinder the international competitiveness of its farmers.
Although the European political establishment is stuck in the past, farmers and scientists are not. Many are clamouring for these new technologies.
“We simply cannot do without genetic modifications,” said plant geneticist Jaroslav Doležel of the Czech Republic. “Cultivation of crops with a modified genome and resistant to diseases and pests will make it possible to dramatically reduce the burden of pesticides on the environment and will be one of the key measures leading to sustainable agriculture.”
Doležel indicated that there was no other way except to adopt new breeding technologies or else “Europe will become a museum of agriculture.”
One example will suffice to explain how EU farmers will be put at a severe disadvantage by not adopting new breeding technologies. NPBTs will be able to create disease-resistant crops. Every year there are countless billions of dollars of crop losses from diseases worldwide. Pest-resistant plants would also reduce the use of fungicides, which is a sizable expense for farmers.
In 2018, scientists from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands in conjunction with scientists from the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority developed a genetically-engineered potato that is resistant to blight. That’s the same disease that caused the infamous Irish potato famine in the 19th century which resulted in the death of an estimated one million people. It also reduces the use of fungicides by up to 90 percent. The potato cannot be commercialised in the EU because of the existing regulations that have all but banned new GE crops.
Scientists are working on eradicating diseases utilising genetic engineering techniques that plague major crops grown in the EU:
Wheat (in 2022, France and Germany produced half of the wheat grown in the EU);
Tomatoes (Italy, Spain and Portugal are the largest producers);
Oranges (Spain, Italy and Greece are the largest producers);
Strawberries (Spain and Poland are the largest growers);
Apples (Poland, Italy and France are the largest producers);
Grapes (Spain, France and Italy account for three-quarters of the area under cultivation);
Sugar beets (France, Germany and Poland are the largest producers);
Rice (Italy is the largest producer);
Cucumbers (Spain, Poland and the Netherlands are the largest producers);
Sweet potatoes (Portugal, Spain and Italy are the largest producers);
Barley (Germany, France and Spain are the largest producers).
Research into creating disease-resistant crops is in its infancy but is likely to come to fruition in the coming years, leading to even more innovations. EU farmers though will not be able to take advantage of cultivating disease-resistant crops unless restrictions are ended.
US agricultural biotechnology companies are actively developing crops that EU farmers will not be able to grow because they cannot be developed utilising conventional breeding techniques.
The first products using NPBTs, non-browning genetically engineered apples and potatoes, have been sold in the US since 2015. A non-browning mushroom has also been developed but has not yet been commercialised.
In 2019, Calyxt, headquartered in Minnesota, became the first company to commercially debut a gene-edited food, a soybean oil that contains 80% heart-healthy oleic acid, 20% less saturated fat than conventional soybean oil and zero trans fats. The soybean oil is rich in monounsaturated acids linked to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and higher HDL cholesterol. High-oleic soybean oil that is used for frying can last three times longer than conventional soybean oil.
The company is also working on developing a genetically-engineered soybean that can be used to make a substitute for palm oil. This would be especially important as the expansion of palm oil production results in deforestation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are the two largest palm oil producers in the world.
Here is a sampling of other foods more recently developed with unique traits using NPBTs:
Late last year, the US FDA approved the sale of a purple genetically engineered tomato. It produces high levels of anthocyanins, which are antioxidant compounds widely recognized to have health benefits. It also has a longer shelf life then garden-variety red tomatoes
Scientists in Australia have used gene editing to increase the protein content of sorghum.
Sanatech Seed of Japan has developed a gene-edited tomato that contains high levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that is believed to help lower blood pressure.
BitterSeeds of Israel has genetically edited cowpea plants that can be harvested mechanically. CanBreed, another Israeli firm, has used gene-editing technology to develop cannabis resistant to powdery mildew.
Pairwise, headquartered in North Carolina, is using gene editing in innovative ways that are likely to capture the attention of consumers: seedless berries, pitless cherries and tastier mustard greens. Under its Conscious Food label, it introduced its first product to consumers in 2023, a flavourful, nutrient-dense salad.
Bioceres, a company in Argentina, has developed drought-tolerant wheat that utilizes a drought-resistant gene from a sunflower. The wheat has a yield that is up to 20 percent higher to other wheat varieties that are not genetically engineered for drought resistance. In late 2021, Argentina received regulatory approval to export the wheat to Brazil and in July 2022, Nigeria approved the importation of the wheat for food and processing but not for planting.
Drought-resistant wheat is of particular importance as wheat is the third largest source of calories in the world, 15%, after corn and rice. Global warming will increase the likelihood of droughts which will depress wheat output. 2022 saw a heat wave that led to Europe’s driest summer in 500 years, hurting wheat, sunflower and soybean production. High temperatures and low rainfall also hurt crop production.
How do gene-edited and GMO crops promote sustainability?
A meta-analysis of 147 studies concluded that growing GMO insect-resistant crops has resulted in a 37 percent reduction in the use of chemical pesticides, a 22 percent increase in crop yields and a 68 percent boost in farmer profits. These are just some of the sustainability benefits offered by transgenic crops, according to an article in GM Crops and Food:
“In the two decades since their adoption, genetically modified (GM) crops have achieved significant environmental benefits by reducing pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions and increasing yields…farmers who grow GM crops have reduced the environmental impact associated with their crop protection practices by 19 percent …GM crops also have brought about major reductions in tillage and fuel use, resulting in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent in 2018 to removing 15.27 million cars from the roads…The technology is also changing agriculture’s carbon footprint, helping farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage, which has decreased the burning of fossil fuels and allowed more carbon to be retained in the soil.”
Genetic engineering of crops can complement the EU’s still-unapproved Farm to Fork policy. Bioceres estimates that if its GE wheat was cultivated on one-third of Argentina’s most productive areas, greenhouse gas emissions would decline by at least 0.86 million metric tons with yields increasing 13-20 percent.
Reducing the impact of synthetic fertilisers is high on the agenda of research scientists. Farmers add fertilisers to their soils to provide crops with the nutrients they need to grow. The use of synthetic fertilisers helped fuel a global boom in crop production but not without environmental consequences. Worldwide, agriculture is the second-largest source of climate change pollution — and both the manufacturing and application of fertiliser have a heavy emissions toll.
Next-generation gene-edited crops might be able to produce their own fertilisers. Nitrogen fertilisers are produced from natural gas (they account for 5 percent of all the consumption of natural gas). It’s also possible that crops could be engineered to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it better in the soil. According to the World Economic Forum:
“…by using genetic engineering to optimize photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy — [the Salk Institute found they] could create plants that were roughly 40% more productive, meaning less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Roots can be engineered to be sturdier, larger and deeper. … Using genetic engineering, researchers could adjust the communication and interplay between roots and microbial communities, helping to stabilize carbon in the soil — making sure it stays there.”
There is no immediate threat that EU agriculture will become an agricultural museum; we are still in the very early stages of the genetic revolution. But it is highly conceivable that the food we consume in ten to fifteen years will be substantially different from the food we consume today. Food will be allergen free, tastier, and more nutritious. Crops will ripen faster or slower depending upon their growth cycle. Harvests will be more bountiful.
The EU cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and not participate in this revolution. It is already placing its farmers at a severe competitive disadvantage, limiting consumer choice, and prompting scientists to depart for countries that are embracing new genetic engineering techniques.
Steven E. Cerier is a retired international economist and frequent commentator on the application of biotechnology to producing food and medicine.
A version of this article first appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project website here and is reproduced with kind permission.