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Do Europe's farmers support plans to ease restrictions on gene edited crops?

Steven E. Cerier

August 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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Despite the continued fearmongering of opponents, economist Steven Cerier notes that a broad coalition of farmers is emerging across Europe in support of the deregulation of agricultural biotechnology, keen to access tools that can help address pest and disease threats, as well as the increasing number and severity of climate disruptions. But if the EU does not act quickly, the fearmongers will delay the adoption of new genomic techniques (NGTs), severely handicapping its farmers, hampering global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, and establishing Europe as a laggard in food production, he warns.


Mexico and the US are in the midst of an escalating trade dispute over President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s import ban on US-grown GM corn for human consumption and plans to phase in a ban on imported GM corn used for animal feed.


According to Mexico’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Victor Suarez and the anti-GMO groups that support his rejectionist policy, most farmers in his country have no interest in growing crops from biotech-engineered seeds. They reject growing it as a matter of ‘food sovereignty.’ They claim that in countries where large numbers of farmers are using GM seeds, they do so only under duress.


This is a condescending attitude towards farmers.


There is no evidence that “most farmers” reject agrobiotechnology. In almost every country that bans all or some GM crops — India and China most notably — a  black market has developed to circumvent government restrictions.


Farmers are desperate for any tool that can help increase yields and protect against disease. Every day they go to war with mother nature, which is anything but benign. They must deal with crop diseases, drought, the rollercoaster ride of commodity prices and the cost of necessary farm inputs such as diesel for their tractors and fertilisers to grow crops. They want to utilise the most efficient means of farming with the least environmental impact.


What about claims by anti-GMO groups that GM seeds unfairly restrict farmers’ choices? In fact, farmers have a wide variety of seed options available to them, including organic, hybrid, conventional and genetically modified seeds. Those farmers that have the freedom to choose to grow GMO crops do so not because they are brainwashed or manipulated by big agribusiness but because it is in their best interests to do so.


Studies in this regard support claims that GM crops help the environment and farmers. A  meta-analysis of 147 studies released in 2018 indicated that growing GMO crops reduces chemical pesticide use by 37%, increases crop yields by 22%, and lifts farm profits by 68%.


Organic food movement allies with anti-GMO activists

Farmers in much of the world will soon have an even greater selection of genetically engineered seeds designed to increase yield, protect against crop diseases, and ease threats posed by climate change: gene-edited crops.


Numerous countries, including the US, Canada, UK and Japan, are embracing new genomic techniques (NGTs), including CRISPR. In many cases these tools are more efficient than GMO crops; technology rejectionists are determined to derail these advances.


Europe is the current battleground. On July 5, the European Commission issued a report years in the making, urging the EU to deregulate NGTs and to treat them going forward as conventional crops — in other words, there would be no labelling or traceability requirements for most NGT crops.


Not unexpectedly, organic organisations around the world allied with European Greens and GM rejectionist groups to protest the recommendations, hoping to pressure the European Council into preserving the status quo that effectively bans biotechnology innovation in EU farming.


The European umbrella organisation lobbying for organic farming, IFOAM Organics Europe, described the recommendation to deregulate most new genomic techniques as “misguided, dangerous for European seed autonomy and a distraction from the agroecological solutions needed to move agriculture toward sustainability… This is a bad day for the European model of a diverse farming and breeding sector.”


Would these proposed reforms damage Europe’s “diverse farming model”?

The organic lobby argues that its mode of farming is more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture. But that is not the case. Organic farmers generally use less-toxic chemicals and pay closer attention to soil health, nutrients and microbial activity. But from a 360o sustainability perspective, there is no contest. Multiple studies show that non-organic farming yields considerably more food with lower costs and in some cases fewer inputs per acre. GM crops often use less water; don’t require tilling, which releases greenhouse gases; and some crops, such as insect-resistant Bt corn, soybean, cotton and eggplant, require less chemical pesticides than their organic counterparts.


Recent independent studies agree. In 2016, the Belgian research institute VIB released a report quantifying the impact of GMOs on the environment. It concluded:


“Insect-resistant crops have resulted in a 230 million kg decrease in the use of insecticides. Herbicide-tolerant crops have led to reductions in fuel use and CO2 emissions of 6.3 billion litres and 16.8 million metric tons respectively, by supporting no-till farming. Overall, GM crops have produced an environmental benefit of 37%.”


In 2018, a Nature study by a team of scientists from the US, Germany, France and Sweden found that organic farming produces far more greenhouse gases than conventional agriculture. This is because organic growers must farm more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farmers; the yield lag is estimated at 40%. The researchers developed a new metric called Carbon Opportunity Cost to estimate the effect of greater land use on climate change. They found that organic production has as much as a 70 per cent greater greenhouse gas impact.


Those findings were attacked by the US-based organic-funded Rodale Institute and by other organic groups but have been validated by multiple subsequent studies. In 2019, scientists at the Royal Agricultural University in the UK, writing in Nature Communications, concluded that if all farms in England and Wales converted to organic production, greenhouse gas emissions would double and yields would decline by half.


An analysis in the MIT Technology Review noted, “It would force hungry Britons to import more food from overseas. If half the land used to meet that spike in demand was converted from grasslands, which store carbon in plant tissues, roots and soil, it would boost overall greenhouse-gas emissions by 21%.”


“The key message from my perspective is that you can’t really have your cake and eat it,” said co-author Laurence Smith, who was part of the team that performed the analysis.


Ignoring the unvarnished sustainability facts, many organic proponents remain ideologically opposed to reconsidering their rejectionist views. “Historically, the relationship between organic agriculture and biotechnology has been antagonistic,” notes a 2022 study in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.


This antagonism induced many smallholder farmers to believe that there is a complete incompatibility between the two agricultural systems. This struggle resulted in a legal framework for organic farming that prevents farmers from incorporating GMOs into their production systems, even if it would allow for better quality, increased climate-related resilience, and productivity, and even less use of pesticides.


What do EU farmers want?

Challenging the organic food lobby propaganda line that biotechnology is about to be foisted on the EU, many farmers eagerly await the pending regulatory liberalisation. They know if they are not allowed to use NGTs, EU agriculture will be left in the dust by those nations who are adopting them.


“Italy’s farmers’ associations (Coldiretti, Confagricoltura, and CIA) … stressed how innovative biotechnologies might help preserve and enhance Italy’s biodiversity, while fostering the sustainability and competitiveness of the agriculture sector,” reads the most recent USDA Biotechnology Report for Italy.


Farmers in the Netherlands seem equally embracing of new seed technologies, according to the USDA. “The Dutch Farmers Organization (known as the LTO) … states that farmers want to be less dependent on chemicals and invest in robust agricultural systems, with the DNA of the plant as a basic element. The LTO argues that innovative biotechnologies are an important tool to breed resistant varieties, and must be deregulated.”


Spain’s farmer associations are also in favour of planting GE crops, the USDA analysis found. “The use of agricultural technologies, such as biotechnology or irrigation systems, to improve competitiveness and obtain consistent output levels are positively perceived and defended by a large majority in the farming sector.”


A broad coalition of farmers is also emerging in Sweden, Lithuania, Malta, Ireland, Hungary, Romania, Belgium, and The Czech Republic. “The existing framework is a “limitation” for European farmers that causes a “brain drain to countries outside of the EU,” Czech agriculture minister Zdenek Nekula has said. “EU farmers could be helped by “using innovation…. We need to support new genomic techniques and breed new varieties.”


Underscoring the broadening of the ‘deregulate agrobiotechnology’ movement now spreading through Europe, young farmers are demanding tools that can address the increasing number of climate disruptions.


“The droughts of 2022 and previous years, the higher frequency and intensity of adverse weather events, and the overall uncertainty for farmers as the climate crisis worsens all call for tools that would benefit the environment and bolster the socio-economic resilience of farms,” notes Diana Lenzi, President of the European Council of Young Farmers.


Why the change in attitudes in recent years? The dual threats of climate change and deteriorating global food security, said Lenzi:


“New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) could support farmers in their environmental action, by improving nitrogen efficiency, reducing the sector’s carbon footprint and producing plants that require less water, fertilisers and plant protection products. Such technology could benefit biodiversity and help mitigate climate change while also improving the economic health of farms by requiring less inputs and guaranteeing more certainty and increased resilience to pests and other hazards. It is also possible that NGTs could improve the nutritional quality of certain products, for example by reducing toxins and allergens, or help preserve traditional varieties that have been impacted severely by climate change.”


Many plant scientists have fled the EU to scientifically hospitable countries more open to agricultural biotechnology. Venture capital in the crop gene-editing space has dried up.


If the EU does not act quickly, fearmongers will delay the adoption of NGTs, severely handicapping its farmers, establish Europe as a laggard in food production and hamper global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.


What will be at stake for the European Union when the New Genomic Techniques reform bill comes up for debate? Nothing less than the viability and competitiveness of EU agriculture.


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.

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