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Green Biotech rEvolutions Newsletter
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Guest Opinion

Christofer Fjellner, Member of the European Parliament (EPP – SE) 
 

The role of science in political decision-making

 

Dear Readers,

The role of science in political decision making in the EU is a hot topic. The issues of glyphosate and GMOs are perhaps the best examples, as these debates are highly sensitive.  

It should be noted that politics is value-driven. Different value systems result in different political decisions. However, problems arise when values are confused with facts, and political positions are dressed up as science-based. This is too often the case when it comes to glyphosate and GMOs. It is a worrying trend that the role of science seems to be shrinking, and is replaced with alternative facts, superstition or even conspiracy theories. 

Glyphosate has been the most widely used herbicide for some 40 years. It has reduced the need for manual labour in agriculture and increased the returns for farmers all over Europe. The European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, and the European Chemical Agency, ECHA, together with national authorities all over the world have come to the same conclusion, namely that glyphosate is not harmful to people the way it is used today. Despite the overwhelming scientific support in favour of a reauthorisation, nothing has yet happened. 

Regarding GMOs, some members in the European Parliament are routinely objecting to all decisions to grant authorisation to new GM crops. Since the end of 2015 at least 15 such objections have been put forth and they are often supported by a majority in parliament. Once again, despite the fact that EFSA has given the green light to all of these crops. 

If you favour decisions which contradict scientific evidence you should at least be open about it. Otherwise, it is nothing but alternative facts. And that undermines the role of the expert authorities, which the EU have entrusted to make scientific evaluations. At the end of the day: If policymakers rely more on alternative facts than science when they make their decisions, how can we ask that members of the public should reject fake news?

Yours sincerely,
Christofer Fjellner

Christofer Fjellner has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2004. Having studied Political Science and Public Finance at the University of Uppsala and the University of Lund, Christofer lives in Stockholm, Sweden and is a member of the Committee of International Trade, a substitute member of the Committee of Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and a member of the executive board of Moderaterna (the Swedish Conservatives) since 2007.

“Humanity has always engaged in genetic modifications.”

– Barack Obama, May 2017

“We need, where we have agencies, to trust their judgement."

– Mairead McGuinness MEP, May 2017 

“Greenpeace is wrong, GM is amazing!”

– Dutch journalist Hidde Boersma, May 2017 

Obama: Follow the facts on GMOs, as on climate!  


Ex-president Obama strongly defended fact-based decision making on GMOs at a conference in Milan in May: “The approach that I took when I was President of the United States is in the same way that I would let the science determine my policies around climate change. I try to let the science determine my attitudes about food production and new technologies. The truth is humanity has always engaged in genetic modifications,” he added. “The rice we eat or the corn we eat or the wheat we eat does not look like what corn or rice or wheat looked like 1,000 years ago. (…) I worry a little bit that sometimes the conversation (in the GMO debate) has just gotten cut off, as opposed to, let’s see what the facts are,” Obama added. Read more and watch the video on Genetic Literacy Project.

Countries criticise comitology proposal

The Commission’s proposal to reform the way member states vote to approve products (comitology) has been widely criticised, including by EuropaBio. The Czech and Polish parliaments oppose the proposal. The Czech chamber of deputies has strong concerns about the proposal’s proportionality and the lack of an impact assessment. It warns of the proposal possibly causing ‘unjustified delays in the comitology procedure’ and ‘unnecessary administrative burden’. The Polish Senate issued a negative opinion on the proposal, which it says would ‘upset the institutional balance established by the Treaty (…) and the division of competencies’. The Dutch government has doubts about the additional procedural steps proposed by the Commission and sees a ‘risk that the procedure drags on eternally’, and wants to demand the Commission to assess the economic impact, especially the impact of a potentially more restrictive GMO authorisation procedure on the European agro-industrial and biotechnology sector. Meanwhile, various committees in the European Parliament are starting to discuss the comitology proposal, while no discussions in Council are planned yet.. 

EU grants GMO import approvals 

On 4 July, the Commission granted authorisations for five GM cotton and maize crops (of which one renewal of an existing authorisation), which had been pending in the EU authorisation system for close to seven years on average.  Despite a clean history of safe use over more than 20 years, risk assessment timelines for GMOs have been rapidly increasing in Europe in recent years,  and several member states vote against the science, making the EU GMO authorisation system one of the slowest and most politicised systems worldwide. EuropaBio has urged MEPs to stand up for EU law and innovation, instead of continuing to issue non-binding objections to GMO approvals. Three GM crops for cultivation are still pending for a Commission authorisation decision, and numerous scientists have appealed to President Juncker to also grant those approvals. 

Commission to countries: respect the science!

The reticence of EU member countries to take decisions on ‘sensitive’ issues, such as approving GMOs, continues to irk the Commission. According to Politico, in June, VP Timmermans reportedly told MEPs: “The only benchmark we have here is the scientific evidence,” and “the persons in charge [of the files in the member countries] should take political ownership,” once the science has been verified. Because many member states continue to vote against the science, EuropaBio has urged EU countries to overcome their GMO hypocrisy.

Closing Europe’s protein - and reality - gap

A European Soya Declaration was signed by 14 national ministers in the margins of the Agriculture Council of 17-18 July. In addition to highlighting the EU’s protein deficit, the Declaration attempts to demonise GMOs  and fails to mention that soya imports, the vast majority of which come from countries where GM adoption is over 90% for soya beans, are essential for the European livestock sector and provide economic and environmental benefits. According to the latest Commission protein balance sheet, the production of soy in Europe only covers 6% of EU’s need. The EU and its Common Agriculture Policy have the right to develop a plan to increase local production of protein crops, but it is untenable to ignore that most of the protein gap is and will continue to be filled with the help of GM technology. Read more here and here.

How NOT to boost soya production: a Romanian case study

Once upon a time, there was a European country that exported soya beans to its neighbours. Biotechnology helped to develop efficient and sustainable soybean production in Romania. The country stopped GM soy cultivation upon its accession to the EU in 2007 to comply with EU legislation and suddenly became a net importer of protein crops to feed its livestock – just like the rest of the EU. As reported by Graham Brookes, “by 2010 the significant reduction in domestic soybean production resulted in 70% reduction in the volume of soybean crushed, coupled with substantial increases in the volumes of imported soybeans and soymeals. Despite farm subsidies to encourage protein crop production, imports of soybeans continue to be significantly higher than 10 years ago”. According to former Romanian agriculture minister Tabara, Romania’s annual loss from not cultivating GM soya beans amounted to approximately EUR 1 billion – see also EuropaBio report ‘GM crops - Reaping the benefits – but not in Europe’ (2011).  

Romanian feed conference highlights importance of trade

The Annual Conference of the Romanian Feed Producers Association (ANFNC) took place in Bucharest on 16 June. It was chaired by the ANFNC’s Iani Chihaia and featured Nick Major, the newly elected president of EU feed industry association FEFAC. Agrobiotechrom presented an overview of the Romanian grains and oilseeds market, which shows that imports of GM crops remain vital for Romanian farmers who rely on GM protein sources to feed their livestock. Read more here (in Romanian).  

             

10 years and no decision on innovation

Plant breeding innovation is being hindered in Europe, according to Petra Jorasch, Manager of Plant Breeding and Innovation and Advocacy for the European Seed Association. “It’s already 10 years that EU regulators and politicians discussed this topic, and they haven’t come to a decision yet,” she said in an article about how Europe probably does not want disease-resistant tomatoes. 

Patent Office limits patents on plants

On 29 June 2017, the European Patent Office announced that plants ‘exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process’ are excluded from patentability. This decision of the Administrative Council of EPO is at odds with recent decisions of its own judiciary - the Enlarged Board of Appeal. To reinstitute legal certainty, which is essential for all innovators, the examination guidelines of the EPO should clarify that the term “essentially biological process” is in line with the Biotech Patent Directive as interpreted by the European Commission. EuropaBio continues to emphasise the importance of solid intellectual property protection for biotechnology generally and on plant breeding specifically. See also: How IP helps farmers grow, and EuropaBio position on the recent EC notice on the biotech patent directive. 

SPD abandons innovation in run up to German election

In their election program (p 50), the Social Democrats (SPD) are campaigning against the use of genetic engineering in farming and in support of strict EU-wide labelling of animal derived products produced using GMO feed. Read more here. The position, which is more in line with the German Greens’ position than ever before, contrasts sharply with the pro-innovation stances of the CDU, which aspires towards technical, biological and digital progress in farming through agricultural research and innovation, and the FDP, which demands a fact-based and results-based evaluation of new technologies, including biotech.  

Brazil approves locally developed GM sugar cane

Brazil has granted the world’ first approval for a GM sugar cane, developed by sugar cane technology centre CTC. The genetic modification makes the canes resistant against the most important insect pest, which causes about $ 1.5 billion of damage in the Brazilian sugar cane plantations alone. The expected benefits include higher productivity with lower costs and insecticide inputs. Sugar cane is a major crop in Brazil (10m hectares), making the country one of the largest ethanol producers and sugar exporters. Read more in Reuters.  

Fascinating plant breeding sketches debuted in Portugal 

On the occasion of Fascination of Plants Day, the ITQB NOVA research institute, the Center for Biotechnology Information (CiB), and Foto&Sketchers 2 Linhas co-hosted a “story sketching” session about plant breeding. As part of ITQB NOVA Open Day activities, about 20 people drew and wrote on sketchbooks for 30 to 45 minutes about what they heard and observed during two guided visits with plant biotech researchers, offering a unique and creative view into plant science and innovation. More info in Portuguese, and photos on facebook.  

Annual event in Portugal highlights plant breeding improvements

The Center for Biotechnology Information (CIB) held its annual event in Porto, Portugal on 13 July. The event, which was hosted by and co-organised together with the Catholic University of Portugal’s Department of Biotechnology, highlighted how in the last 10 years, there has been significant progress in in developing more precise and efficient breeding methods to introduce or reveal important crop characteristics. Plant breeding innovation holds enormous potential to develop solutions to global challenges, including food security, agricultural sustainability and climate change. More in Portuguese here

Dutch farmers support plant breeding innovation

The Dutch farmers association, LTO, has published a paper outlining its ambition to become the world’s leader in sustainable production of food by growing healthy and robust plants: ‘Plant health 2030: Healthy harvest, healthy future’ states that to reach this goal all new techniques, including new plant breeding methods, are necessary and that a policy change is needed to facilitate plant breeding innovation. 

Ag Biotech benefits society says IDEN Biotechnologys

In a recent article, IDEN Biotechnology highlights some of the actions it has taken this year to communicate about the benefits of agricultural biotech to society. Its event “Benefits of using biotechnology for agriculture” was one of several events held by various stakeholders during International Fascination of Plants Day on 18 May. The event offered an opportunity to showcase the many benefits that biotechnology provides, such as crop improvements, improved food production, and environmental sustainability, to a group of young, aspiring science students who will contribute to future research. 

EU funding of anti-science NGOs challenged

The European Parliament hearing on EU funding of NGOs on 27 June 2017, illustrated how some European NGOs take advantage of the lack of scrutiny by the European Commission when it comes to NGO financing. The Risk Monger, David Zaruk, provided the example of how some NGOs have used the weaknesses of the system to spread money among their partner organisations. The conference, which was not attended by the Greens and relevant NGOs, called for more scrutiny and accountability for NGO funding. An EP report supports these findings and key recommendations. 

Green fear mongering lacks transparency

The multinational anti-GMO industry receives significant support from sources within the organic industry. According to Michelle Miller, “the organic industry spends nearly $3 billion a year (…) leading with fear and ‘information spin’ as an industry to sell their products.“ The close ties of organic industry and Green MEPs also raise political accountability issues. Christofer Fjellner MEP (EPP, Sweden) refers to Sven Giegold MEP (Greens, Germany) saying in an interview that ”the fight for transparency is always welcome when it is about others, but not about yourself”. Fjellner retorted: ”It is a bit ironic taking a look at the track record of the Greens’ own lobby registration.”

Top executive: create jobs, don’t reject science 

Heinz Haller, VP of Dow Chemical in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India, has accused the Commission of not adhering to science-based decision-making on crop protection products and GM crops, with negative consequences for job creation and the environment, which is at odds with the Commission’s claimed efforts to make better regulation and create jobs and growth. Haller suggested that scientific evidence should play a more important role, because: “In the end, the world needs to feed eight to nine and a half billion people and you’re not doing that with today’s existing technology.” Meanwhile, Dow has announced its launch of new GM crops in North America, following import approval in China.

Control switch of plants’ immune system discovered  

Two new papers published by researchers from Duke University in North Carolina and the Huazhong Agricultural University in China describe the discovery of a new method to boost the defense mechanism of plants against multiple pathogens. This system has been inserted into a rice plant  to help combat various diseases without negatively impacting crop yield. Protecting plants from many pathogens while keeping the same amount of yield is a very promising discovery with a great potential for farmers to contribute to food security. Read more.

Genes from baker's yeast can help plants cope

A research team led by Paula Duque from the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC; Portugal) has discovered genes from baker's yeast that can improve the resistance of plants to a broad range of toxic substances that impair plant growth and development. The research could help to enable the growth of plants in contaminated soils. The research was also published in "Scientific Reports", a journal of Nature group. A press release is available in English and Portuguese. Read more in Portuguese here

German protestant church accused of witch hunting 

Several scientists and politicians who are part of the German Forum Grüne Vernunft have accused the leadership of the protestant church in Germany of ‘an antagonistic position to science and humans’ when it comes to GMOs. Prof. Klaus-Dieter Jany accused them of ‘ignoring in an irresponsible manner the call by over 120 nobel laureates in favour or green biotechnology’. They handed out leaflets in Wittenberg, the city of Luther, on the occasion of the protestant church day, a major event. Prof. Reinhard Szibor said: ‘the defamation of GM seeds by EKD is one of its greatest failures since the publication of Hexenhammer in 1486’ – a pamphlet advocating the extermination of witches. Read more (in German) here, here.and here.

Short Science & Safety News 

  • India: GM mustard to bolster honey bees population, increase honey production and beekeepers’ income - South Asia Biotechnology Centre
  • India: Scientists back GM mustard – Deccan Herald
  • Good progress in Swiss GM potato field trials - Bauernzeitung 
  • Vatican outlaws gluten-free bread for Holy Communion (though it may be made from GMOs) - BBC 

GMOs have increased farm incomes by $ 167 billion 

A new peer-review report by PG Economics shows that over the last 20 years, crop biotechnology has significantly reduced agriculture’s environmental impact and stimulated economic growth in the 26 countries where the technology is used. It has also helped alleviate poverty for 16.5 million, mostly smallholder farmers, in developing countries. Among the benefits they list are reduced land required to grow food, more efficient use of crop protection products, a lower carbon footprint for agriculture, and better livelihoods for smallholder farmers. See also the press release and additional coverage here and here.

Opposition to GMOs ‘responsible for death of poor people’  

Dutch journalist, microbiologist and former Greenpeace supporter Hidde Boersma states in his recent Volkskrant article entitled “Greenpeace is wrong, GM is amazing!” (Dutch original, English summary): “Millions of farmers in developing countries are being denied technology due to western preoccupations (…), while GM can make the difference between life and death”, he points out. Boersma and director Karsten de Vreugd also made the film ‘Well Fed’, which examines the influence of western GM opposition on the poorest farmers.

GM free labelling: a marketing tool that adds to confusion

Poland’s notification of its draft law on GM free labelling (more information in Polish) highlights the division between EU member states over the issue. Some reject GM free labelling as misleading, whilst others have national legislation promoting such labels, and some want harmonisation at the EU level. According to the EU Commission, ‘such voluntary labels are possible provided that they are not misleading for the consumer’. In September 2015, the Commission informed the member states that it did ‘not consider appropriate to engage at this point in time in a harmonisation process.’ In Germany alone, GM free labelled products worth 4.4 billion Euros are expected to be sold in 2017. EuropaBio has published ‘Principles on GM free labelling’, a brief document that cautions against the use of such labels and tries to put them into context, as mere marketing tools. “The proposal submitted to the consumer by way of GM free labelling is to actively avoid an entire technology, rather than a particular ingredient which carries an objective risk”. In EuropaBio’s view, priority should be given to the labelling of health related information, because consumers need accurate, verifiable and relevant information to avoid confusion and misleading messages.  

EU lagging behind on soil-friendly agriculture 

The incoming Estonian Council presidency indicated that it wants to put the sustainability of soils used in agriculture on the agenda and hold a conference on the topic in October. Europe has been lagging far behind GM cultivating countries on soil-friendly no-till and low-till practices, as also shown in a new report by the European Conservation Agriculture Federation, which was presented to MEPs. GM crops help farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as no or reduced tillage, which decreases the burning of fossil fuels, retains more carbon in the soil, decreases soil erosion, and can also increase soil moisture. Read more about GMOs and soil health in this infographic.

‘Food Evolution’ film marks turning point in public GMO discussion

“How do we make the most informed decisions about how we feed ourselves?”, asks well-known scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the new film "Food Evolution". This documentary, directed by Academy Award nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy, looks into the GMO debate with an objective lens in order to demystify the science and safety behind these organisms. The documentary has received numerous positive reviews, including ones in the New York Times and LA Times. Learn more.

Short Cultivation & Benefits News 

  • South Africa: 2017 (GM) maize crop seen almost doubling to record harvest - Reuters 
  • Your organic cotton t-shirt might be worse for the environment than regular cotton - Quartz
  • U.S: Anti-biotech group uses big tobacco strategy to refute GM research – Producer.com 
  • Oxitec’s GM Mosquitoes Safe for Release in the Netherlands – Labiotech
  • Battle against ‘fake news’ about GMOs waged in developing countries, too – Genetic Literacy Project
  • Kenya faces hunger, but refuses GM corn from South Africa – Genetic Literacy Project / Bloomberg
  • Kenya: Parliament calls for GM maize trials – Business Daily 
  • Kenya: Paying the price for rejecting scientific answer to food crisis - Daily Nation
  • Philippines: From Frankenfood to Light of Hope: Evolution of GM perception - ISAAA 
  • India: Ag Ministry will promote GM mustard if approved - Economic Times
  • Inside look at why Russia has turned against GMOs – Genetic Literacy Project 
  • Canada: Greenpeace is a menace to the world – Globe and Mail
  • U. S. Trade Representative: Buy GMOs or expect a fight - Agriulture.com 
  • U.S. Testing Begins on GM ryegrass developed in New Zealand - NZ Farmer
  • U.S: Harmonize conflicting regulations for genetically engineered plants and animals - Nature

New Secretary General takes office 

 

On 19 June, John Brennan took over the helm as Secretary General of EuropaBio. A science graduate from Dublin, Ireland, with additional post-graduate studies in quality control and environmental engineering, John has over 25 years’ experience both on the regulator and the industrial sides of the healthcare industry. In a press release published earlier this year, John highlighted the great importance of continuing “an open, fair and constructive dialogue with all players involved to make sure that society, including the biotech industry, thrives in a way that benefits all.”

EuropaBio annual report builds on success



EuropaBio’s interactive new annual report looks back at various biotech accomplishments over the past 12 months. The new report covers all three biotech sectors, but it also offers deep insight into recent successes and continuing challenges facing agricultural biotechnology in Europe. 

Plant science can help feed the world



Agriculture has been feeding the world for the last 10000 years, explains Francisco Barro Losada, a plant scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture AS-CSIC in Spain who works with both bread and durum wheat. As one of several “Food Heroes” featured as part of CropLife International’s #FoodHeroes initiative, Francisco explains that the development of new varieties, new agricultural techniques and more efficient use of nutrients and water are important for protecting crops.

Get involved in European Biotech Week 2017



Join the annual celebration of biotechnology through public outreach activities across Europe! In 2016 there were 135 events involving thousands of participants in 16 European countries. Organisers have significant freedom to define their activities, which in the past have included career fairs, hands on laboratories for adults, students and children, competitions, games, exhibitions and open doors in companies, laboratories, research institutes and museums, and even theatre shows and flash mobs. It does not cost anything to participate and your initiative will receive promotion through the week’s communications channels. Read more

Commissioner invites AFCC to communicate about science 



On the occasion of the COCERAL/UNISTOCK Conference, Commissioner Andriukaitis called upon the Agri-Food Chain Coalition (AFCC) and its stakeholders to further promote science. "The promotion of science is one of the key objectives under the AFCC’s recommendations for better and smarter policy-making", responded Roxane Feller, Chair of AFCC. Read more.

Selected reading!

 
Contacts

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

For more information and our contact details
www.europabio.org

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