Ag needs to rebrand GM crops as ‘green’

European politicians and regulators are viewed as the major barrier to the development, adaptation, adoption and diffusion of biotechnology in the global agri-food system.

Considering that the countries that belong to the European Union 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, biotechnology companies and farmers around the world will face challenges in profiting from the new technology.

I have recently returned from Brussels, the home of the key government structures of the EU. I was a participant in a Canadian government advocacy event co-ordinated 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.

I was surprised at the changes in attitude and structure in Brussels. In the late 1980s, the European government footprint in Brussels was modest. Twenty-three years later, Brussels is clearly at the epicentre of a much more expansive and aggressive European government.

EU policy about GM crops is of vital interest to many reading this, but it would be hard to see that it is on the top of the agenda in Brussels. Our audience was relatively small, but intently interested in what we had to say. The chair, a Scottish member of the European parliament, immediately bemoaned the absence of any effective dialogue about GM crops in the EU.

We thought the best part of Canada’s story is that GM crops, especially the herbicide tolerant canola varieties that 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 and consumers.

However, our audience really perked up only when we talked about the environmental effects.

There is strong evidence, both at the farm level and in the context of recent regional studies, that GM canola has been good for the environment.

Herbicides used on GM canola incorporate fewer active ingredients, 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 percent of producers now use conservation tillage practices, which preserve organic matter in the soil, conserve moisture, reduce erosion and — most intriguing for our audience — sequestered more than one million tonnes of carbon annually in 2005-07.

The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that crop production contributes up to 12 percent 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 meeting 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 presentation, it might just be possible to bring the EU into the fold, as full-fledged developers, adaptors, adopters and consumers of GM food.

Phillips is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. The above is an edited version of his blog on the Ag-West Bio site,

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