Many European governments have succumbed to anti-science zealotry when it comes to the safety of genetically modified (GMO) crops. The superstitions are being purveyed by the quacks and shamans who infest leading environmentalist groups. But perhaps science may triumph over superstition even in Europe. One such sign is that the Guardian today is running an op/ed by plant biotechnologist Jonathan Jones defending the safety of biotech crops.
Jones begins by pointing that 25 years and €300 million of European Union research into the biotech crop safety has flat-out concluded that there is "no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms." In fact, no other independent scientific body has ever found that current versions of biotech crops were not a net benefit to both people and the environment.
Nevertheless, anti-biotech know-nothings just this past month vandalized transgenic wheat test plots in Germany and Australia. What evil biotech spirits were the looting witch doctors trying to exorcise? In the case of Australia, the government-funded researchers are developing one variety that boosts yields; another more efficiently metabolizes nitrogen; a third triples levels of amylose, a starch that doesn't spike blood sugar levels. The horrors!
In his Guardian op/ed Jones is pleading with would-be vandals to let researchers work on developing varieties of potato that resist Phytophthora infestans, the fungus responsible for the Irish Famine in the 1840s and which destroys $3.5 billion in potatoes each year today. Jones explains what the new biotech potatoes might achieve:
Phytophthora has evolved to circumvent all the 100s of resistance genes in most cultivated potato varieties. Resistance genes exist to recognise pathogens, enabling the plant to activate its natural defence mechanisms. The aim of the trial is to test whether resistance genes from wild potatoes will give commercial varieties the ability to detect when they are under attack by UK pathogen races, and then activate defence.
Because of the difficulties of potato genetics, it is essentially impossible to breed a useful trait such as disease resistance from a wild inedible potato into a well-defined variety such as maris piper or desiree while retaining all the characteristics that the market loves in these potatoes. GM is a particularly useful tool because it enables us to introduce a desirable trait without at the same time breeding in unwanted ones.
Naturally, the self-appointed anti-biotech exorcists refuse to meet with the scientists to learn about the research. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal:
Meanwhile, the benefits of GM technology are becoming clearer to all. Insect resistant GM cotton and maize has reduced insecticide applications and lowered mycotoxin levels in the maize we eat. Genetic engineering in microbial research has produced new antibiotics and other natural products. JIC's purple tomatoes contain elevated levels of health-promoting anthocyanins.
Food insecurity and climate change highlight the challenges of sustainably feeding a growing world population. Further research using GM methods opens new possibilities for raising and stabilising yields, improving resistance to pests and diseases and withstanding abiotic stresses such as drought and cold.
But in Europe, while taxpayers' money is still paying to develop useful GM crop traits, taxpayers are not benefitting from their deployment. In contrast, Canada, China, the US and South America are blazing ahead with GM and India is not far behind. The latest figures from theInternational Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications report 15 million farmers planting GM crops on around 150m hectares in 2010. Many promising GM traits exist, often discovered by academics, but the commercial risks are too great, the costs too high and the rewards too low for the European private sector to invest in taking them forward.
To get around this problem, I suggest that it is now time to establish a private/public partnership to put GM traits into favoured crops. The top priority should be wheat, but barley, potato, rapeseed and tomato should also be supported. We could test which available GM traits actually do something useful in UK varieties, in UK conditions, and then evaluate them for deregulation in the public sector. If the UK were the first European country to wholeheartedly re-embrace the technology, we could attract substantial inward investment.
The argument has to be made that the benefits of the technology far outweigh any hypothetical hazards. We need to think about the cost ofnot adopting GM as well as the risks, and we must not spurn the great opportunities created by embracing it.
The plain fact is that with respect to biotech crops, Europe is becoming an increasingly isolated island of anti-science primitivists. Jones' op/ed (in the Guardian of all places) suggests that there is some hope that superstition can some day be banished from the old continent.