EU’s gene editing ruling shows disdain for science

Canada is open for business and will welcome global agricultural researchers as they abandon less hospitable nations.

While this is likely a gross over-simplification of the situation, our national science strategy will be a good fit for European companies, talented scientists and international state-funded projects looking to exploit the latest in genetic tools.

Lack of public trust in science for agriculture and food has worked its way into courts and governments, most recently manifesting itself with a European Union decision that will add costs and drive away research. Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that any new genetic tools that change DNA, other than traditional mutation breeding platforms in use before 2001, are now considered equivalent to genetic modification, which inserts previously non-resident genes into an organism. This includes the use of CRISPR-Cas9, but is not limited to it.

The ruling will put a chill on plant breeding in Europe and place high hurdles in the path of the development and use of crops created with those technologies.

Slowly and surely there has been a march away from public support for science-based decision-making in agriculture in Europe. Consumers have come to fear science that is poorly understood and communicated.

It is becoming a world where carbon-intensive, less resource-efficient agriculture is seen as a better choice than the use of modern production techniques because the former evokes an unsustainable love for a type of farming that never really existed.

A quick look around recent global politics helps to understand that voters can be easily swayed when being told a story they would like to be true but isn’t: “It’s not your fault. It’s them, not you. “Farming in the past was better for everyone.”

This Luddite thinking is more pervasive than many might imagine. The Luddites of the early 1800s weren’t fighting against mechanization; they opposed the loss of work and food created by the Napoleonic Wars. They didn’t understand that, so they smashed the machinery-of-change that they could see instead.

The isolationist idea that the American working class will be restored through limits to trade and immigration and the elimination of environmental research programs and the use of their data is part of the same thought processes. These created what appears to be a protest vote against the loss of an unsustainable past coloured by a rosy rearview mirror.

When it comes to farming and food production, many people are giving simple answers to very complicated problems. Because everyone eats, most people have experienced a garden and are only a few generations separated from a farm, and many believe they have some expertise around food production.

Those same folks wouldn’t claim that level of understanding around medicine or the mechanical technologies of their cars or show a great desire to return to using the postal system to communicate. That is in part because there aren’t groups of them organizing and following Luddite-type leaders and economic opportunists that are attacking these technologies.

Like the Americans’ self-inflicted wounds of trade and research, Europe has allowed its courts to stab global economies in the stomach based on the say-so of a few ill-informed activists and their under-informed followers and funders.

Hobbling agricultural research and societies’ abilities to access better food that is more sustainably grown is the crime these courts should spend their efforts deliberating.

In the meantime, welcome to Canada, highly trained scientists from around the globe and the research funding you attract. We’ll leave a light on for you.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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