Last week, Reuters reported that Germany was set to continue with a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. This decision will undoubtedly meet a well-planned barrage of criticism.
When the Scottish government made a similar call last month, its decision was condemned by scientific leaders such as Anne Glover, a plant biologist and former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission. Critics characterized the ban as an insult to science and the idea that regulation should be based on evidence.
I am a big fan of the scientific method. You won’t find me thanking God for putting the plane up in an Airbus 320. I happily attribute its successful flight to the scientists and engineers who mastered fluid dynamics. I also support the general principle of evidence-based policy.
Yet I remain confident about facing corporate pressure from Scotland, Germany, France, Italy and others and pending decisions to keep GM crop technology out of the European countryside. I await with interest England’s response to a deal signed last December by the European Union, which allows its member states to make their own choices on licensing GM crops.
Whatever these nations decide, the stakes are not as high as they were before. When the United States began licensing GM soybeans and maize (corn) 20 years ago, many crop producers thought that global acceptance of the technology would depend heavily on European acceptance. This is probably no longer true.
The global acreage of GM crops has steadily increased without widespread acceptance from Europe. It is topping out now. Last year, according to industry data, it grew by just 3% to reach 181 million hectares – a little more than a tenth of the 1.5 billion hectares of land under the UN’s estimate of crop cultivation.
Five-sixths of that GM acreage is in the US. The rest consists mostly of non-food crops (mainly cotton) grown in India and China.
There is little crop in countries that need better yields to feed themselves. Twenty years on, the GM strains currently under cultivation are still best suited to the needs of large-scale industrial farmers who can afford the seeds and inputs that come with them. Whatever Europe decides, the rest of the world is not waiting to follow.
And this time, Europe’s debate about GM crop cultivation isn’t really on GM crops itself, but on how countries should assess and manage risk. When Europe turned its back on GM crops 15 years ago, the pro-GM lobby warned it signaled a continent in crisis, unprepared to embrace the future.
But since then there has been little sign that Europe is far from technology. It hasn’t slowed or bound itself by rejecting nanotechnology-based wound-dressing or mobile phones, of which it was the world’s fastest adopter.
Despite the GM episode, evidence-based policy is alive and kicking in Europe. But good risk management includes early communication with the public and careful weighing of many factors, not just scientific risk assessment. In general, however, industry – which typically holds most of the relevant data – favors scientific risk assessment as the be-all and end-all regulation (see Nature 508, 289; 2014).
Environmentalists – even civilized ones, such as the European Commission and former US Vice President Al Gore – prefer the precautionary principle, which places the burden of proof on the innovator.
In practice, all governments have to walk a line between the two. But where to draw that line? In Europe, especially in countries that value the origin of food, the general public does not want GM foods.
The jury also stays away from its ecological impacts (see Nature 497, 24–26; 2013). Should they still be grown because the data says they are safe to eat? Call me naive, but given the microscopic state of our democracy, it doesn’t tend to quell public concern like that.
In the United States, major regulatory decisions were made in 1995, with little public input. They clicked on the basis of ‘substantial equivalence’, which assumes that GM foods are the same as their constituent parts.
Substantial equality was the original sin that undermined public confidence in GM technology, and advocates have been over-compensating for it ever since.
Genetic modification is a blockbuster technology that has a huge potential to mix and match genes; Its use or abuse has a profound impact on the global ecology and food supply. It is by no means ‘substantially equivalent’ to plant breeding.
That sin may end soon. On July 2, John Holderen, science adviser to US President Barack Obama, instructed regulators to reconsider the US framework for regulating agricultural biotechnology. Holderen is promising simpler rules for small producers, but also more transparency.