Europe is asking its farmers to use fewer pesticides and less fertilizer, while still producing the same amount of food.
If European governments were willing to adopt the latest agricultural innovations, like gene editing and precision ag, reaching such a goal might be possible.
Difficult, but possible.
In late July, researchers from 132 scientific institutions published an open letter about the importance of genome editing — a process used to insert or delete genes from a plant’s DNA. The scientists urged the European Commission to permit the use of gene editing for agricultural crops.
If that doesn’t happen, European farmers will continue to fall behind the rest of the world, they said.
“Genome editing offers an increasing range of solutions… for crops that are climate resilient, less dependent from fertilizers and pesticides and help preserve natural resources,” the researchers wrote. “We recommend that the European Commission endorses this message for the benefit and welfare of all EU citizens.”
The scientists are from multiple countries, including Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Portugal and Poland. They are part of the European Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE) network.
The group was created in 2018 following a European court decision, recommending that gene-edited crops should be treated the same as those that are genetically modified. Since GM crops are basically banned in the EU, gene-edited crops would also be prohibited.
The court decision was a shock because most plant scientists say gene editing is a safe and precise method to improve wheat, barley and other crops, without introducing foreign DNA into the plant.
“This technology… allows scientists and breeders to develop desired crop varieties in a faster, relatively simple and much more directed way compared to previous breeding techniques,” EU-SAGE said.
European farmers will soon need better crop varieties because the European Commission has lofty goals to make agriculture more sustainable. In May, the EU unveiled its Farm to Fork strategy, which sets out ambitious targets for 2030:
- A 50 percent reduction in agricultural pesticides
- A 20 percent cut in fertilizer use
- Twenty-five percent of farmland will be organic
Some leaders say the Farm to Fork strategy will make European farmers less competitive and less open to trade.
“When innovative tools are taken away from a farmer the only choice is protectionism,” said United States agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, as reported by www.foodnavigator.com. “(That) isn’t healthy for Europe, the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.”
Setting ambitious targets for sustainability, while prohibiting gene-edited crops, doesn’t make a great deal of sense, the EU-SAGE scientists said. If plant breeders could use the technology, maybe they could design a crop with 20 percent more resistance to disease, which would reduce the need for fungicides.
The European stance on plant breeding is problematic for all farmers, including Canadian producers. Multiple nations, including Japan, Australia, Argentina and the U.S., have decided that gene-edited crops will not be regulated like GM crops, if there is no foreign DNA.
So if it’s not transgenic, a gene-edited crop will be treated the same as a conventionally bred crop.
If Europe bans gene editing and the rest of the world takes a different approach, it could make life difficult for grain-exporting nations.
“The regulatory approach for genome-edited crops in Europe is completely out of line with the regulations existing in other continents,” EU-SAGE said. “The lack of regulatory harmonization worldwide poses challenges in global trade and in the seed sector.”