A very dry summer alongside a low supply of fertilizer and energy spikes have created the perfect storm for the European agricultural sector, with staple crops like sunflower and grain maize plummeting by 12 and 16 per cent respectively (1).
No wonder there are increasing pressures (2) by member states such as the Czech Republic, Romania, Lithuania, Sweden and Italy to reconsider the EU rules leading to the 2018 European Court of Justice decision on genetic plant breeding techniques. The Court’s ruling amends the original 2001 European Commission directive on plant modification by treating CRISPR-based plants and traditional genetic manipulation as one and the same. Critics rightfully point to how the judgment hampers innovation at a time of crisis when ingenuity is needed more than ever.
The response of the Greens European Free Alliance group to these pressures can best be characterized as stormy. The EFA has come out swinging in the arena of public discourse with a report (4) that includes a few pages of claims and many more pages of personal accusation.
No matter the emotional thunder, neither the report’s assertions nor its accusations hold water.
Its claims about the effects of genetic engineering are that it produces uncontrollable, unintended and unsafe mutations in cells, well beyond the ones found naturally or in standard mutagenic breeding (as in, induced via radiation or chemical reaction). It would be better to stick to organic farming with organic plants instead.
Yet these claims do not measure up to the overwhelming evidence (5) (weighing thousands of studies over a 21 year-period) that gene edited plants reduce (rather than increase) the need for pesticides (6), are less prone to disease (7) and are more reliable than older plant breeding methods (8). Even more critical analyses of studies (9) found no evidence of them being unsafe for humans.
The assertions ignore the fact that 100% organic farming is often more energy and use intensive (and thus more polluting) (10) and does not scale up (11) to the task of feeding billions of people worldwide.
These angry statements are often illogical. One line of argument says having a patent is proof that the new genetic procedure cannot produce the same result as a natural process. This must be true, it says, because it would not have been patented otherwise! That said, a patent can be awarded for other reasons than achieving a different result – such as finding a new and easier means to the same result. By ‘coincidence’, this is closer to the real argument in favor of genetics-based plant breeding.
Not to mention how the report overreaches by trying to discredit mutagenic rearing in the same breath as new techniques. At this point, the reason for rejecting mutagenic breeding (now almost a century old practice) is that it harms plants, despite it not harming people or animals. One could easily reject eating plants, or natural selection, on the same grounds.
Most of the report is less about science than it is about the politics in science. It accuses innovation-friendly academics and groups like EPSO, ALLEA or EU-SAGE of not being researchers at all. Rather, they are activists sneakily posing as neutral experts to do the sinister bidding of companies and revolving-door politicians. It then names and shames several individuals working in the field before concluding that more transparency is needed at the EU-level.
Let’s set aside for a moment that the accusations are false – many of these same researchers have never hidden their CVs from public scrutiny and have been very outspoken about their views (12).
Forget for a moment how unusual it is to say that well-established researchers should not pursue ‘career developments’ in the field they specialize in, must limit contacts in the industry whose performance they are asked to comment on and cannot access any of the public-private funds that are standard academic fare.
Let’s instead focus on what the report ends up doing. In trying to poison the debate with talk of dark interests, it undermines faith in the EU’s scientific institutions, since consumers have no reason to trust organizations that are as corrupt and selfish as the EFA makes them out to be. It sets out a viewpoint that paints all criticism as a ‘lobby claim’ and its side as ‘reality’. The report does all this while misunderstanding the science and practice of genetic modification.
Best then to take a deep breath and calm down.