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.


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