Europe vs. Scientific Consensus

Co-authored by Drew L. Kershen.

The modern techniques for genetic improvement — recombinant DNA, or “genetic modification” (GM) — began to be applied to bacteria and plants 40 years ago. For the first time, molecular biologists could very precisely move genetic material and its traits from one species to another. The resulting new plant varieties have revolutionized agriculture by boosting farmers’ profits and food security in much of the world. But not in Europe.

For more than 20 years, bucking a worldwide scientific consensus, the European Union (EU) has maintained literally nonsensical laws and regulations that focus not on the risk-related characteristics of new plant varieties but on the process — recombinant DNA technology — used to create them. The result is a dysfunctional regulatory system in which there is an inverse relationship between the degree of regulatory scrutiny and the perceived risk of the products. Recombinant DNA-modified plants are regulated into virtual oblivion while new plant varieties crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques are generally unregulated, whatever risk they might pose.

The EU regulatory system has authorized only two recombinant DNA-modified crops for cultivation in the European Union. Some member states have been so antagonistic that one variety (potato) has been virtually abandoned and the other (corn) has been banned from many EU nations on the basis of completely bogus concerns about safety. This situation is not expected to change, at least in the short term, despite a September 6 ruling by the European Court of Justice that applications to cultivate recombinant DNA-modified crops are not subject to national authorization procedures by individual EU countries when the bloc has approved their use and marketing.

As Sir Richard Roberts, a British Nobel Prize laureate, concluded, “European opposition to genetically modified organisms is political rather than scientific in nature.”

As a result of its unscientific regulatory approach, Europe collectively ranks behind countries like Uruguay, Pakistan, and the Philippines in the cultivation of recombinant DNA-modified crops.

Recombinant DNA-modified plants are regulated into virtual oblivion while new plant varieties crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques are generally unregulated, whatever risk they might pose.

Science does not stand still, and in recent years genetic engineers have greatly expanded their repertoire. Recent research has given rise to at least eight new technological variations of the original theme, and these improved techniques for genetic modification permit even greater versatility and precision. A recent European Commission report said of these advances, however, that “the main constraints for the adoption of the techniques are the regulatory uncertainty and the potentially high costs for risk assessment and registration (if the crops derived by these techniques are classified as GMOs [genetically modified organisms]),” which are highly (read: excessively) regulated.

The advent of these techniques for genetic modification presents a conundrum to European regulators, who can choose to regulate them in one of several ways.

First, the EU could alter its regulatory approach to reflect the scientific consensus that molecular breeding techniques are essentially an extension, or refinement, of less precise conventional breeding techniques, and deregulate them except when risk-related issues arise, such as the introduction of potential allergens or exposure to substances completely new to the food supply. That would free the newest techniques from the existing discriminatory and unscientific regulatory shackles. This is by far the best option, but it has no chance of adoption. Politics will continue to trump science.

Second, the EU could torture the science and somehow define just some of the new techniques as being subject to current GMO regulation. Plant breeders and seed companies would then preferentially use the technologies that escape the regulatory net, while the less fortunate others would become subject to the same debilitating barriers of time, effort, cost, and stigma that the EU presently inflicts on recombinant DNA modification.

Finally, the EU could decide that all eight new breeding techniques are sufficiently analogous to recombinant DNA technology that they fall within the existing, stultifying EU regulatory system for GMOs. The EU is most likely to adopt this option, which would continue the virtual ban on domestic cultivation of the most innovative and useful genetic varieties of plants.

In a recent UK agricultural report, British agricultural scientist Julian Little predicted that Europe’s refusal to adopt modern plant breeding techniques would relegate the continent to “museum agriculture.” If that were to occur, because of its wealth Europe would be unlikely to face actual food shortages, but it would need to import increasingly expensive food from abroad.

Such an increased European demand for imports would put upward pressure on food prices worldwide, which would exacerbate the world’s food insecurity as the planet’s population grows from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050.

Europeans themselves may not go hungry, but they will have created conditions that predispose the poor of the world to greater hunger and malnutrition. History will judge European politicians and regulators harshly.