Biotech a tough sell in Europe

Europe isn’t about to change its stance on genetically modified crops any time soon or stop exerting its influence on developing nations, says a supporter of the technology.

Stuart Smyth, industry funded research chair in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college, said the European Parliament is heavily influenced by environmental groups opposed to the technology.

“This is going to be a fight to the death by the environmental groups. They will never concede a single benefit to biotechnology,” he told delegates attending the Emerging Technologies for Global Food Security Conference.

“Last year, the anti-biotechnology movement spent over $10 billion globally fighting biotechnology.”

By comparison, the latest figures he had for total annual research and development spending by the six largest agricultural technology companies was $8.6 billion.

Smyth said the European Union is showing no signs of changing its attitude toward GM crops.

The G7 group of nations recently announced a joint initiative aimed at lifting 500 million people out of poverty by 2030. One of the tactics promoted by the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is for farmers in 10 African countries to start using GM crops and hybrid seed.

“The European Parliament calls it a mistake, and they’re actually trying to encourage the G7 to move away from a commitment to GM crops,” said Smyth.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recently issued an annual report that was highly critical of biotechnology. Most of its 60 authors were Europeans.

The report concludes that the future of food security in developing countries is a return to organic, small-scale farming practices.

Smyth said the European Union’s regulatory system is in a state of gridlock. Developers of GM crops are facing three to five year delays getting their new varieties through the approval system. Some traits have been languishing in the system for more than a decade.

He said the regulatory delays are greatly reducing returns on investment for developers of GM crops. It costs an average of $136 million to commercialize a GM crop.

And the situation is getting worse. Last year, the EU decided to shift GM crop approvals from the European Commission to the member states.

“Immediately 19 of the 28 member states of the EU opted to ban GM crops,” said Smyth.

Environmental groups are also targeting new gene editing technologies such as CRISPR. Some argue it shouldn’t face the same regulatory scrutiny as GM crops because no new genes are being inserted in the plant.

However, environmental groups have called on the EC to reject any attempt to exclude new technologies from EU regulation.

Smyth said that will only further stifle innovation in the EU and elsewhere. Companies such as BASF have pulled their research spending out of the EU and transferred it to the United States.

Less than 10 percent of global agricultural research and development money is spent in the EU, compared to one-third 20 years ago when GM crops were first commercialized.

He is also concerned about the EU’s influence on developing countries when it comes to how they treat GM crops. He believes it is time for drastic action on that front.

“We need to help developing countries opt out of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,” he said.

The EU was the main driver of the protocol, which 170 countries have ratified. Major exporters such as Argentina, Australia, Canada and the United States have refused to sign the agreement.

The agreement includes a clause that links import approval of GM crops to socio-economic considerations.

“It’s the biggest barrier to innovation and agriculture in the developing world,” said Smyth.

“It’s based on the precautionary principal.”

There is pressure by environmental groups to adopt new wording in the clause that would change it from a voluntary approach to a mandatory requirement to consider socio-economic impacts.

The EU is using its considerable influence to pressure developing countries to sign the accord.

The World Trade Organization allows countries to establish favourable tariff rates for certain countries on certain products.

The EU requires that any country wanting the lower tariff rate must first ratify the Cartagena Protocol.

Smyth said governments from GM exporting nations should work with philanthropic organizations and researchers to convince developing countries to opt out of the protocol.

They need to show developing countries the benefits of GM crops.

PG Economics Ltd. released a report May 31 saying the global net farm benefit of GM crops has been $150 billion in the 19 years they have been commercialized.

Smyth highlighted numerous studies detailing how GM crops have boosted yields, decreased pesticide use and increased farmer profits.

His second “radical” idea was for Canada, the U.S. and Australia to seek regional agricultural trade agreements with developing countries, forcing them to break their ties with the EU.

“We need to find a way to fence Europe out of global agricultural trade,” he said.

That would allow developing nations to freely decide whether they want to adopt new technologies.

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