Europe and GMOs: Perhaps there is a way forward

Posted on March 28, 2012

by Peter Phillips


European politicians and regulators are widely viewed as the major barrier to the optimal development, adaptation, adoption and diffusion of biotechnology in the global agri-food system. Given that the 27 member states in the European Union combined produce more food than any other country in the world and are the world's largest trader in agri-food crops, they cannot be ignored. As long as they are unwilling to fully use the technology, Canadian and global farmers and biotechnology companies will face challenges in profiting from the new technology.

I would like to offer my take on the prospects for change in Europe. I have just returned from Brussels, the home of the key government structures of the European Union. I was a participant in a Canadian government advocacy event coordinated through the European Parliament. A panel of Canadian regulators, a farmer and me, an academic, were invited to talk about the regulatory, scientific, economic and environmental effects of GM crops in Canada.

Before I divulge the take-home message of our event, my impressions of the trip might give you a sense of the challenge facing industry and policy makers hoping to change European attitudes about GM crops.

I was quite surprised at the changes in attitude and structure in Brussels in the past while. In the late 1980s my doctoral studies frequently took me to Brussels and I gained access to the insides of the European Commission to examine the dynamics of the Common Agricultural Policy. I was most interested in how the CAP affected the EU stance in the trade negotiations that ultimately delivered the World Trade Organization Agreement in 2005.

At that time, the European government footprint in Brussels was modest; the Commission had only about 6,000 Eurocrats, the political Councils that made many of the decisions were itinerant affairs, the Economic and Social Committee, theoretically a key part of the system, was hard to find and the European Parliament spent much of its time in Luxembourg in makeshift facilities. All important business appeared to be conducted inside a single building, the iconic Berlaymont at Rond-Point Robert Schuman.

23 years later, Brussels is clearly at the epi-centre of a much more expansive and aggressive European government, with massive new glass and steel buildings housing the Parliament and ESC and as best as I can tell, almost a new glass tower for each of the 33 Commission Directorates-general, which jointly employ about 23,000 Eurocrats in Brussels.

The EP, in particular, has come of age, occupying an impressive new building covering more than eight square blocks. The EP is the focus of thousands of visits and events daily. Even at 6:30 p.m. it was a virtual anthill of activity, with our advocacy event attracting a tiny crowd compared to a well-attended and lively Greek celebration (of another bailout, as best as I could tell!). On that day there were hundreds of committee and plenary meetings in that complex, on virtually any topic you could imagine.

While EU policy about GM crops is of vital interest to many reading this, it would be hard to see that it is on the top of the agenda in Brussels. Our audience was relatively small (we probably would have lost more of our listeners to the Greeks but for the free canapés and wine that followed) but intently interested in what we had to say. Right off the bat the chairman, a Scottish MEP, bemoaned the absence of any effective dialogue about GM crops in the EU.

We attempted to get the discussion going with a few presentations. While we thought the best part of Canada's story is that GM crops (especially herbicide tolerant canola which Canada had a major part in developing) have proven the efficacy of our regulatory system and generated real and measurable economic returns for innovators, farmers adopting the technology and consumers, our audience really only perked up when we talked about the environmental effects.

Both at the farm-level and in the context of recent regional studies, there is strong evidence that GM canola has been good for the environment. In the first instance, herbicides used on GM canola incorporate less active ingredient, are less toxic than those used for conventional canola, require fewer applications and are less pervasive in the environment, all which benefit farmers, consumers and the broader ecology.

Probably as important, GM canola has contributed to a dramatic change in farm practices. More than 75% of producers now use conservation tillage practices, which preserves organic matter in the soil, conserves moisture, reduces erosion and – most intriguing for our audience – sequestered more than 1 million tonnes of carbon annually in the 2005-7 period. The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that crop production contributes up to 12% of anthropomorphic carbon dioxide, which is one of the major contributors to climate change. The Europeans were particularly excited that the technology could address this important EU issue.

The lure of more and cheaper food and more profitable farming generated little or no interest. The consensus of those at the event was that only the environmental evidence has any chance of shifting public opinion and eliminating regulatory roadblocks in the EU.

Perhaps it is time to rebrand GM crops as 'green' alternatives to conventional technologies. With the right evidence and the right messaging, it might just be possible to bring the European Union into the fold, as full-fledged developers, adaptors, adopters and consumers of GM foods.

Peter Phillips
is an international political economist and Professor of Public Policy in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Commentary: Biotech as bellwether

    Posted on 09/05/2012


  • Ben Odell

    Posted on 08/05/2012

    Organic farming is only less productive when you look at yield without considering inputs like water and topsoil.

  • Linda Illingworth RD

    Posted on 07/05/2012

    With 85% of corn and soy grown in the US now GMO, how radical is it to conduct GM business so those of us who choose to eat the other 15% organically grown have the right to without GMO contamination. I think what gets missed is there are many people who want to choose for themselves rather than have monsanto force a solitary option. Maybe big GMO should also take a rethink on meeting in the middle? My great grandfather would chuckle at the idea he was a radical farmer!

  • J.I.

    Posted on 01/05/2012

    Great comments, MiketheScribe!

  • MiketheScribe

    Posted on 05/04/2012

    I must confess I've become frustrated over the years by the illogic of the anti-GMO stance and this often comes out in my postings. I would argue that GMO technology is "green" in that it is better for the environment, since it lessens the impact of farming. For example, I have farmers in my family, and I recall one telling me that he embraced GMO herbicide resistant canola because it allowed him to do in one pass what formerly took him four passes. Less fuel burned, less greenhouse gas emitted. Also, the pesticide used (in this case, glufosinate ammonium) breaks down easily in the environment. "Poison" is a relative term, you see. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, onions are poisonous to cats, herbicides are poisonous to (some) plants. In terms of GMO technology itself, I offer the example of herbicide resistant canola again. Two systems were developed via genetic engineering, while one was developed by standard induced mutagenesis (this uses radiation or chemicals that will damage the DNA of the plant material, causing mutations). The GMO varieties are not allowed in Europe and much decried by the anti-GMO folks, but the mutagenesis version is okay. It makes little sense to me. There's a bucolic vision out there that we should be more in tune with Mother Nature, somehow control competing plants (weeds)or the insects that eat our crops without any type of pesticides. I don't think this is feasible. All human activity will have some impact on the environment - even organic farming, which is arguably less productive than conventional. I also have a former organic farmer in my family, and at least here in Canada, they cannot make a go of it without a price premium, which tells me it's not competitive. I guess it all depends on who you trust - farmers and corporations are accountable to our regulators, who must answer to our politicians and eventually to the people. Activists, I'm not sure are answerable to anyone. The science is out there if one cares to dig it out, but if one has already convinced themselves that pesticides are universally bad as poisons and are unwilling to consider evidence to the contrary, there's not really a constructive discussion to be had.

  • Dean Kreutzer

    Posted on 03/04/2012

    Well, that is the problem with using generic words like 'green' or 'natural', as everyone has a different views on their meaning and there is no benchmarks or standards to back it up. Setting aside the controversial safety issues with GMO's for a moment, I am having a difficult time understanding how spraying less poison on our crops as previous years, is considered 'green'. Some how we forget that we are still applying toxic chemicals to our land, water, and food. But, like Mike the Scribe says, I guess I am just a radical environmentalist and have nothing better to do with my life than attempt to spread fear and be anti-technology. It is sad that people who ask questions about the safety of our new technologies like myself, don't get taken seriously, and just get ridiculed. With extremists on both sides of the debate, it is no wonder that the regular consumer hasn't got a clue who to trust.

  • Peter Phillips

    Posted on 30/03/2012

    The debate about what makes a product or technology

  • MiketheScribe

    Posted on 29/03/2012

    Well, it's a nice thought, except the anti-GM movement is extremely strong in Europe and unlikely to be moved by mere reason and sound science. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said "GMO corn kills monarch butterflies! I wanted to scream at the guy driving the car, "No it doesn't!" There have, of course, been numerous studies that show Bt corn does the butterfly larvae no harm. In fact, by allowing farmers to cut down on the spraying that conventional corn needs, Bt corn actually *saves* the butterfly larvae because they don't get killed as collateral damage. But I suspect this knowledge would not have changed that driver's mind, any more than I could have changed his religion: radical environmentalism, like radical religion, is a set of beliefs invulnerable to reason and logic. I suspect the future of GMO technology does not lie in Europe, but in Asia, which has many more mouths to feed and cannot afford the luxury of irrational food phobias. Anti-GMO, organic and back-to-the-land conceits are only possible if you and your family already have full bellies and the financial resources to keep them that way.

  • Dean Kreutzer

    Posted on 29/03/2012

    GM crops are a green technology? That is laughable. The entire basis of the technology is the complete dependance on a toxic chemical being applied. Now that there is resistance building in weeds, and insects, even more toxic pesticides are required to combat these problems. You can't win the war against mother nature, it abhors monocultures and it will eventually adapt and destroy this kind of technology. I'd like to see the data saying GM crops are more green than organically grown ones. Good luck with that angle.