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Green Biotech rEvolutions Newsletter
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Guest Opinion

Pedro Gallardo 

Farmers need access to technology and innovation

 

Dear Readers,

As a farmer in the south of Spain, the European Union’s plans to reform the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of my main concerns. Farmers need a well-functioning CAP, but after several frustrating meetings in Brussels, I am convinced that not enough is being done to provide farmers with the right tools to support them. I strongly believe that it is time to put agricultural technology and innovation in the forefront of the EU’s agricultural and trade policy.

Political messages supporting innovation are everywhere, but talk must be followed-up by actions to promote a regulatory environment that will help farmers access the tools and technologies they need. Europe has a lot to gain from allowing GM crops, which have already brought numerous benefits. We highly depend on importing them to feed our farm animals. In Spain, we also benefit when we grow insect GM resistant maize. 

GMOs are only one good example of how our authorities and politicians allow opinions to override science without helping to communicate the facts, thereby undermining not only farmers’ choice, but also public perception. Why do so many other Member States try to veto the approval of GM maize for Spanish farmers, when they already banned these maize products in their own countries?

We need the EU’s policy framework, including its product approval and agricultural support systems, to be consistent and science-based, in order for us to meet the EU’s need for sustainable and protein-rich feed. The Commission’s recent proposal to reform the product approval system, known as comitology, will not have any positive impact on farmers and innovation in the EU. On the contrary, it risks politicising the system to an even greater extent. In this post truth era, I am surrounded by small to medium-sized EU farmers who are trying to compete in a global market, but they are being denied access to the tools they need to compete.  European and national decision makers must start showing more leadership, to defend facts and science against populism, especially when it comes to technology in farming.

Yours sincerely,
Pedro Gallardo

Pedro Gallardo is a Spanish farmer and experienced manager in the agricultural industry. In 2014, Pedro won the Most Innovative Award at the 2nd EPP European Congress of Young Farmers after he pioneered a different way of planting sunflower seeds, allowing him to increase the density of seed per hectare In 2017, he was nominated to become an EU Food Hero by Antama, the Spanish association for agricultural biotechnology.

“I insist that science has to be part of the solution, whether we like it or not.”

– Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations

“Gene technology has got real benefits to offer."

– UK Princess Anne, farmer and patron of the countryside

“A sustainable framework for the deployment of GMOs should be possible”

– The co-chairs of the Flemish Young Greens, Belinda Torres Leclercq and Stefanie De Bock

“As for gene editing in agriculture, the European Union has asked states not to make up their minds how to regulate it yet, till a slow-moving French court case is heard by the European Court of Justice, perhaps next year. This is madness.”

– Viscount Matthew Ridley, Member of the House of Lords. 

NGOs and media challenged over fake news  


Fake news is a growing concern, according to Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the UK House of Commons science and technology committee, He notes that the committee recently found that “where scientific evidence is willfully misreported, procedures for redress and correction are deeply lacking. Media organisations, which hold so much influence and responsibility in this area, must take greater care to avoid false balance.” Meanwhile, in the light of non-transparent funding of NGOs, as reported widely in German media (Spiegel, Stuttgarter), the European Parliament is considering a draft report on NGO financing. Rapporteur Markus Pieper (EPP/DE) notes that NGOs should only receive EU funds “if they argue by means of verifiable facts” and don’t “demonstrably disseminate untruths”. EuropaBio’s Beat Späth commented: “Especially in today’s post-truth age, misinformation tends to spread quickly, and influences decision making, as often happens in the case of GMOs. It is an important political decision whether to fund misinformation.” Commission funding practices have been criticised by think tanks such as ECIPE (on trade) and New Direction (on environment), and Politico recently shed light on a “mystic money man behind Brussels activists”. Examples for false NGO statements on GMOs can be found here. In the context of a US court case, Greenpeace uses in their defence that they “do not hew to strict literalisms or scientific precision”.

EuropaBio: Comitology proposal won’t fix hypocrisy

The Commission proposal to change the ‘comitology’ process for EU product authorisations is unlikely to contribute to jobs and growth restore trust in evidence based decision-making, or effectively change Member States’ voting behaviour, argues EuropaBio in its position paper on comitology, calling for the withdrawal of the proposal. Member States and EU institutions should instead “support predictable decision-making processes based on the best available science (…) through “properly implementing the existing comitology system and by strengthening risk communication to build trust in the EU’s risk assessment agencies.” See also our articles “EU nations should overcome GMO hypocrisy”, “EU Parliament should squash comitology proposal and promote innovation”, “EU Comitology reform threatens innovation in a post-truth world”, and our additional articles in the March 2017 edition of rEvolutions

Comitology proposal criticised by opinion leaders 

MEPs also criticised aspects of the Commission proposal at a first discussion on the proposal in the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee on 3 May 2017. The rapporteur (P. Durand, Greens) criticised the Commission’s proposed referral to a second appeal committee or a Council opinion, and A. Fox (ECR) criticised the proposal to change the voting rules in the appeal committee, as it might weaken the powers of Member States. Daniel Gueguen, an expert on comitology, argues that “far from reinforcing the agencies’ (EFSA, ECHA) activities, everything is being done to reduce their credibility and de facto deny the validity of their opinions,” and he concludes that “first, confidence must be restored!” BIO, the US biotechnology innovation organisation, wrote: “With this proposal the Commission is attempting to shift responsibilities back to the Member States rather than working towards building confidence and consensus in support of the independent scientific opinions of EFSA."  

UK Committee report on Brexit and agriculture mentions GM

The House of Lords European Union Committee published a report on Brexit and agriculture, highlighting the opportunities to change UK agricultural policy post-Brexit, as well as noting the potential risks to trade with the EU if there is regulatory divergence in agriculture. The report specifically cites GM, including comments from Professor Joseph McMahon from University College Dublin, who noted that GM is a devolved issue and highlighted there could be regulatory divergence on GM across the UK post-Brexit. McMahon also suggested there could be border and customs checks within the UK. 

Polish GMO cultivation law being amended

The Polish government has prepared an amendment to its law governing GMOs in efforts to implement EU regulations concerning their cultivation and release into the environment. The draft grants farmers the right to cultivate GM crops inside special zones under supervision, only after receiving a special permit. The draft is being discussed in the Agriculture Committee of the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament). More information here (in Polish).

Germany: feed & agri-trade industries demand openness to GMOs 

On 28 March, the German animal feed and agri-trade associations demanded more political support for agricultural trade, and more openness for new plant breeding techniques and GMOs. Import authorisations for GM commodities should be granted in the EU. Delays should thereby not burden the market, stated animal feed industry association DVT, according to Topagrar.  

Academies defend Genome Editing

A new report by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) “Genome Editing: Scientific opportunities, public interests, and policy options in the EU” gives advice to European policy-makers on groundbreaking research involving genome editing and plants, animals, microbes and patients. The report emphasises that policy-makers must ensure that the regulation of applications is evidence-based, takes into account likely benefits as well as hypothetical risks, and is proportionate and sufficiently flexible to cope with future advances in the science. One key recommendation to EU regulators from the report is that they “should confirm that the products of genome edition when they do not contain DNA from an unrelated organism do not fall within the scope of GMO legislation”. For a concise overview on genome editing, read this post note.                  

SAM confirms precision of new techniques

The European Commission’s Scientific Advisory Mechanism (SAM) has published an explanatory note on New Techniques in Agricultural biotechnology. It confirms that “the precision and control over changes made is greater than with the use of conventional breeding or established techniques of genetic modification. As a consequence, these new techniques result in fewer unintended effects”. Garlich von Essen from the European Seed Association commented: “We see neither need nor legal basis for subjecting plants resulting from latest plant breeding methods to different or additional safety assessment requirements than identical plants obtained by natural mutagenesis or from well-established breeding methods using chemicals or other mutagens.” The Commission is expected to use the note in forthcoming public debates. As expected, the SAM note does not contribute to the much-needed legal certainty. The possibility of a follow-up SAM note on some of the concrete techniques and likely trends in the coming years is being considered. For a concise overview on new plant breeding techniques, read this post note

Precaution does not justify GMO bans

Once more, a national GMO ban has been criticised for being based on mere hypothesis. On 30 March, advocate-general Bobek at the Court of Justice of the EU published his opinion in a case about Italy’s ban on the cultivation of EU-approved insect resistant GM maize. Bobek confirmed that a claimed “risk cannot validly be based on a purely hypothetical approach, founded on mere assumptions which have not yet been scientifically verified”, and that products cannot be banned simply by referring to the so-called precautionary principle. He warns that, should a broad interpretation of the precautionary principle prevail, “the difficulty then becomes how to determine where to draw the line so that the precautionary principle does not turn into a universal incantation to block innovation. By definition, innovation implies novelty in relation to the extant knowledge.” For more detail and a EuropaBio comment, see here. The highest courts have also repeatedly declared French GMO cultivation bans illegal. 

UK to reject over-precautionary approach? 

At its worst, the precautionary principle “does huge harm, because it says: banish potential hazards without considering the benefits of an innovation, while ignoring the hazards of an existing technology, and therefore don’t do anything new.” This is part of a letter by viscount Matthew Ridley, Member of the House of Lords and columnist, to George Freeman MP. Ridley continues: “For example, European certification of genetically modified crops is so impossibly slow, uncertain and politicised as to have frightened off all applications in recent years. The result is that Europe has missed out on the organic, insect-resistant “Bt” revolution in plant breeding and is far more reliant on pesticides instead. The newer technology of gene editing, which is being pioneered in British laboratories, has been given a green light by US regulators, while the EU has - get this - asked member states to avoid making a decision at all. What signal does that send?” Viscount Ridley also wrote an article on the subject in Politics Home and asked an oral question in the House of Lords linked to encouraging the UK to adopt better regulation following Brexit.  

Genetic innovation in limbo in Germany 

A new funding initiative of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research  (BMBF) – “Crops of the future” - supports plant breeding research and “genome editing” in particular, as part of the "National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030" of the BMBF.   The initiative recognises that new molecular-biological tools have great potential for agriculture. In the meantime, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture has launched a dialogue process in Berlin to discuss new plant breeding methods, which included more than 200 representatives of industry, science, politics and civil society at a first event on 24 April. A next event is planned for 26 June in Berlin. Despite the great potential for biotech crops to contribute to improved sustainability, an event organised by the German Agricultural Society (DLG) earlier this year showed that dairies in Germany are increasingly demanding producers to refrain from using GM feed, as "Without Genetic Engineering" trademarks become a standard in food retailing.  

Brazilian perspectives on driving innovation

On Tuesday 25 April the UK’s all party parliamentary groups for Science and Technology in Agriculture and Brazil held a joint meeting in the Houses of Parliament to consider the Brazilian perspective on driving agricultural innovation. Brazil has seen a massive growth in agricultural production and an OECD study has projected that, by 2020, Brazil will be the world’s largest food supplier, responsible for 40 per cent of global output. Much of this success is a result of Brazilian farmers embracing scientific innovations. The meeting therefore brought together representatives from the research communities of the UK and Brazil to consider the Brazilian perspective on agricultural innovation and sustainability.  

GMO bans continue despite solid safety consensus

More than 275 organisations and scientific institutions worldwide support the safety of GM crops, amongst which 87 from Europe. With 2000+ global studies affirming safety, GM foods are among the most analysed subjects in science. Yet GMO cultivation remains largely banned in Europe. As EU countries have run out of pseudo-science to pretend they are not safe, most EU countries now ban GMO cultivation officially for non-scientific reasons, essentially because many years of unfounded scaremongering and alternative facts by NGOs have made GMOs unpopular. Similarly, the Swiss Parliament recently prolonged the existing national moratorium on approvals for GMO cultivation until 2021. Following a referendum in 2005 and unsubstantiated claims that there were unanswered questions about the technology, a major national research programme was conducted, which confirmed in 2013 that there was no evidence for any risks which could justify a ban. Decision-makers who continue to cast the consensus on GM crop safety into doubt should explain why they trust unfounded scaremongering more than their own national academies of science and similarly trusted representative organisations. 

EU Food Chiefs Defend Science

In a recent interview Reuters reports that the Executive Director of EFSA, Dr. Bernhard Url, said: “If political actors discredit scientific organisations because they don't like the outcome in one out of 100 cases, they diminish the reputation of an organisation that they as policymakers will need to rely on in future."  He also noted: "If trust in scientific advice is diminished, the likelihood will be higher that ... the decisions taken will not be the best for society". Politico also reported in April that during opening remarks to the Agriculture committee in the European Parliament in April, Url asked ‘’for politicians to support the scientific judgment behind his body’s opinions and refrain from accusing it of bowing to industry pressure’’. The statements follow earlier ones, covered by Euractiv earlier this year, which touched on heated subjects, including glyphosate, GMOs and new technologies for plant breeding. Likewise, in the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament, Commissioner Vytenis Andriukatis openly critised recent trends undermining the value of science and experts. He advocated for a more rational public debate supported by the latest scientific knowledge and encouraged the European Parliament to promote science-based dialogues.  

GM combats cancer – why doesn’t Europe?

Insect resistant GM maize is already reducing carcinogens, but EU consumers are largely prevented from enjoying this benefit. Mycotoxins are naturally produced by mould fungi. Aflatoxins, a sub-group, are among the most potent known carcinogens, causing up to 155,000 cases of liver cancer each year and leading to the destruction of 16 million tons of maize. Like most countries, the EU has threshold limits for mycotoxins, allowing for small residues in food and animal feed. Member States like France and Italy sometimes fail to comply with these limits. Despite health concerns confirmed by EFSA, France tried to obtain an exemption from the thresholds in 2014. While France has regularly misused the precautionary principle to ignore EFSA advice on safe products like GMOs, how does it explain that it wants to expose its citizens to higher levels of carcinogens? The situation is already contradictory enough, with a zero tolerance policy currently applicable for GMOs whose safety has been confirmed in third countries (but not yet in the EU). One biotech solution is already available: insect resistant (Bt) GMO maize prevents pests from entering the crop, which in turn limits the holes through which the molds and mycotoxins can enter. The EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre confirmed that, “the adoption of Bt maize can result in lower mycotoxin levels”, and this was specifically confirmed for Spain, where farmers are allowed to grow one type of Bt maize. Nevertheless, France and Italy were amongst the Member States that voted against the (re-) approval of three Bt maize events in March. Another scientific breakthrough may be even more efficient: scientists in Arizona have successfully tested a genetic tweak to prevent the toxins from being produced in the first place. 

Resurrection plants to survive drought 

Scientists around Jill Farrant at Cape Town University have managed to create “resurrection plants” which come back to life after extended periods of drought. Genetic mechanisms for desiccation tolerance exist in numerous crops, but they are only naturally switched on in 135 varieties. The scientists are working to switch these mechanisms on also in farmed crops, such as maize, beans and an edible grass called teff, which accounts for two-thirds of the daily protein intake in Ethiopia. The news comes against the background of the worst droughts in parts of Africa in 35 years, and was covered by Reuters and Austrian weekly Profil

Short Science & Safety News 

  • GM crops to boost yields by ripening on demand - The Times
  • Science could increase yield in wake of phosphate shortage – ScienceDaily
  • Biotech could rescue coffee from the impacts of climate change, argues El Confidencial
  • New mechanism for drought tolerance discovered - ScienceDaily
  • EU (…) regulations ‘defy scientific, economic, and common sense’, By John Davison & Klaus Ammann - Genetic Literacy Project

More GM crops than ever before 

The annual ISAAA Biotech Report for 2016 was published this month. It shows that 185.1 million hectares of GM crops were planted in 26 countries by 18 million farmers, an increase in area of 3% compared to 2015. In Europe, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Slovakia grew more than 136,000 hectares of biotech maize in total, up 17% from 2015, reflecting the EU’s need for insect resistant maize. Spain continues to be a leader in Europe. Additional country and region specific information, as well as global approval statistics, can be found in the report, which confirms that 78% of soybean, 64% of cotton, 26% of maize and 24% of canola planted in the world were biotech varieties, generating farm income, boosting productivity, and saving land from ploughing and cultivation. An ISAAA video and press release has been published (also available in Portuguese, Spanish, among other languages).

More GM maize for EU farmers? 

The EU Commission should authorise two additional GM maize events for cultivation in the EU, and extend the only existing cultivation authorisation for insect resistant GM maize. At the second Member States’ vote on 27 March on these three products, Member States remained strongly divided. Having banned their own farmers from growing the only GM crop approved for cultivation in the EU, a number of Member States voted to prevent other, mostly Spanish farmers from accessing innovation. EuropaBio emphasises that EU nations should overcome their GMO hypocrisy and vote for science and reason. In light of two votes without a qualified majority and more than 40 EFSA safety confirmations for these three products alone over approximately 15 years, the Commission is now obliged to grant these authorisations. We reiterate our comment that “it is time for Europe to finally apply the rule of law and go with the science instead of expelling an entire technology based on unfounded scaremongering. All we are asking for is that Europe correctly implement its existing GMO authorisation system“. 

GM potatoes for environment & health

First generation Innate® Potatoes, developed by Simplot Plant Sciences, have been grown in the USA and cultivation is expected to start in Canada in 2017. These potatoes are less prone to bruising and black spots, thereby helping reduce food waste, They also contain less asparagine, which can result in a significant reduction in the formation of acrylamide at high temperatures. The second generation has now been approved by US regulators. It combines the aforementioned traits with resistance to blight, which Simplot expects to enable a 50% reduction of fungicide use. The traits are based on RNAi gene silencing technology, without incorporating any foreign genes.  

New oilseed can resist global warming

University of Copenhagen and Bayer have developed a new oilseed crop that is much more resistant to heat, drought and diseases than oilseed rape. Read more about these “mustard seeds without mustard flavor” on the website of Copenhagen Uni and in Nature Biotechnology.

UK: Princess Anne supports GM crops

Princess Anne expressed her support for GM crops in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme, stressing that we have to accept the process could have important benefits for providing food and could improve livestock health. She said: “To say we mustn’t go there just in case is probably not a practical argument”. It was also covered in the BBC article Genetically-modified crops have benefits and by Reuters UK.

Organic urged to embrace biotech for environment

As organic movements are debating whether to expand their self-imposed bans to additional plant breeding technologies, scientists are urging them to end old misconceptions and instead consider the benefits of plant biotechnology. “We now know that breeding is more unpredictable and causes more genome disruption than genetic engineering”, write G. Gheysen and R. Custers in their article “Why Organic Farming Should Embrace Co-Existence with Cisgenic Late Blight–Resistant Potato”. They add that growing such potatoes “would not only be environmentally beneficial, but it would strongly reduce the need for fungicide sprays (and) reduce the disease pressure in organic potato cultivation.” Organic potato growers normally use copper sulphate (which the US Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed to be moderately toxic for birds and highly to very highly toxic to fish and aquatic life), instead of synthetic fungicides. G. Ryffel argues similarly in his article: “Reviewing the potential benefits of disease-resistant potatoes and bananas, it seems possible that these crops support organic farming.” Ultimately, the question is whether organic should be primarily sustainable, or primarily a world-view biased against modern technologies. Prominent pro-organic scientist U. Niggli and the co-chairs of the Flemish Young Greens are amongst the actors who advocate openness towards innovation. Numerous studies and scientific advisers doubt altogether whether organic is better for health or the environment, and some publications debunk myths about organic farming.

Africa leaves Europe behind on GMOs

Around 2.8 million hectares of GM crops were grown commercially in Africa in 2016. The EU’s GM crop cultivation is roughly equal to that of Sudan – less than 5% of the African total. Well over 50 GMO field trials are being conducted in 12 to 14 African countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, with a large variety of crops. By contrast, field trials in the EU have plummeted by over 90% in the last six years, to below 10. Food insecurity remains severe in Africa, and population growth is faster than on any other continent. Misinformation, partly encouraged by EU-based NGOs, has played a significant part in delaying regulatory approvals and adoption in Africa. Many African policy makers and media see the EU’s over-precautionary approach as proof that something must be wrong with GMOs, as former UN secretary general Kofi Annan confirmed: “The position of Europe on GMOs has [an] impact on other regions, because of their superior knowledge of science. The attitude would be: if Europe has this position, there must be something to it. They must have done their research and we are not going to jump ahead of Europe.” In the same interview, Annan recalled the refusal of urgently needed deliveries of food aid by some African governments, because the deliveries included GMOs. EU officials warned Africa against adopting GM crops, though sometimes such warnings were later corrected. Like elsewhere, representative scientific institutions such as the International Society of African Scientists have emphasised GM safety and highlighted that “agricultural biotechnology represents a major opportunity to enhance the production of food crops, cash crops, and other agricultural commodities in Africa, the Caribbean and other developing nations.”

Swiss GM moratorium prolonged against evidence 

In March 2017, the Swiss Parliament prolonged the national moratorium on GMO cultivation, in clear contradiction with the scientific evidence produced by a dedicated national research programme which was set up to inform this decision. The multi-annual programme cost SFR 13 million (close to € million) and concluded that GMOs are safe and can contribute to sustainability, and that coexistence is possible also in Switzerland. Dr. Philipp Aerni (Univeristy of Zurich) asked: “Why should taxpayers’ money in its millions be spent on independent research, if it is not respected in politics anyhow?”

  • India: GM crops could contribute to higher food output: Ag Research chief – Times of India 
  • Bangladesh to release 3 more Bt Brinjal varieties – Daily Star 
  • Ghana: GMO cowpea hits local market next year – Joy News
  • Australian commission calls for state governments to lift GM crop bans - ABC
  • USA: Transgenic to ensure American chestnut returns – State University of New York 
  • Bomb attack damages Monsanto research center in Italy – Science 

New Guide to GM crops hits the shelf

 

The Green G-Nome is ready to guide you to new heights of knowledge about GM crops and policies in the EU. The new pocket-sized guide released this week by EuropaBio's Agricultural Biotech team is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the important role and untapped potential of agricultural biotechnology in Europe.

European Food Heroes tackle farming challenges



What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? José Miguel Mulet explains in this on-line interview. He is one of the European food heroes that are helping us to tackle important food and agricultural challenges, from improving drought tolerance to increasing water efficiency of crops. Find out more about Food Heroes throughout Europe and the world here and under the hashtag #FoodHeroes.

What EU Member States say. And what they do… 



Which Member States voted with the science in 2016? How many tonnes of soya beans did they import in 2016? Find out the answer to these questions and more in our updated Member States voting factsheet

GMO Quiz tests your knowledge



How much do you know about GM crops? Can you guess how many farmers grow GM crops globally? Or what about the benefits GM crops can provide? Take this quiz published this month in Politico to test your knowledge of the science and history behind GM crops. To help you learn more, the Green G-Nome's guide is available online. Read More

New video will get you thinking 



After 1000s of years, almost everything around us is modified, yet GMOs have been vilified together with ‘modern ag’. GMO are actually an ally in the fight to protect nature, health and profitability, as demonstrated by GM Eggplants in Bangladesh and the papaya in Hawaii. In fact, GMOs could and perhaps should actually become “the new organic”, a powerful weapon to “save the biosphere” and feed future generations, as explained in this video: “Are GMOs Good or Bad?”!

Selected reading!

 
Contacts

EuropaBio is the European Association for Bioindustries. Our Secretary General is Nathalie Moll. The Green Biotechnology Team are Beat Späth, Pedro Narro, Petra Kostolaniova, Violeta Georgieva, and Chris Gallasch.

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