By Gabriela Cruz: Elvas, Portugal
Imagine trying to survive in the modern world with one of those old mobile phones that featured a stubby antenna, push-button dialing, and an LCD display.
You’d prefer to stick with your smartphone, right?
Today’s obsolete device was a cutting-edge technology back in 2001, the same year that the European Union approved its GMO Directive.
The difference is that although our personal technologies have advanced in amazing ways, the EU remains beholden to its outdated regulation—to the enormous detriment of all Europeans.
This summer, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ)—the EU’s top judicial body—had an opportunity to take a big step forward and embrace a bright future. Instead, it retreated backward, ruling that the GMO Directive covers not just GMOs but also innovative gene-editing techniques that are on the verge of becoming a reality.
In other words, an antiquated regulation will deny farmers like me a chance to exploit the latest innovations and harvest the world’s most outstanding crops.
I’ve been farming in Portugal for three decades, and my family has farmed for more than a century. We grow winter cereals, clover, rapeseed, and soybeans. We also plant a single variety of GMO corn.
I wish we could have other varieties of crops that have been improved through technology. The new gene-editing tools rapidly becoming available include strains that conserve water through drought resistance, make better use of nitrogen, and reduce our reliance on herbicides and pesticides. We’d use less inputs, gain productivity on the land already in production, protect the environment and keep farmers like me competitive. Additionally, it would keep much needed research for farmers in Europe.
But we’re blocked from using these remarkable plants, thanks largely to the GMO Directive.
Meanwhile, I’ve watched for years as farmers around the world have taken advantage of agricultural technologies that EU regulators essentially have banned. The result is that we don’t grow nearly as much food as we might, raising prices in grocery stores from Spain to Estonia.
Europeans are paying more for their food because the EU denies me the best crops.
So I was excited to learn about the advent of gene editing. The current technology often referred to as GMOs and used safely for over 2 decades, involve the transplantation of genes from one species to another to make a plant stronger by resisting specific pests or disease. While there’s nothing wrong with this—scientists around the world have endorsed the method as safe—it still strikes some people as odd. Responding to this concern back in 2001, the GMO Directive more or less banned approvals of new strains.
Yet gene editing results in something fundamentally different from GMOs. Identified as “CRISPR” and other names, it merely manipulates genes that are already present in a plant, making possible the development of bigger and better crops that grow more food on less land—a remarkable opportunity to move aggressively into a new era of sustainable agriculture.
Think of it as an accelerated version of the traditional breeding that farmers have performed for millennia, something that the ECJ acknowledged in its decision as fully safe. Gene editing is even safer, though, because it’s also more accurate and predictable.
That’s apparently how the ECJ’s advocate-general, Michal Bobek, viewed the question. Earlier this year, he urged the court to exempt the gene editing from the suffocating restrictions of the GMO Directive. On July 25, however, the ECJ formally rejected his sensible recommendation and insisted that the GMO Directive applies to a technology that its original writers simply could not have envisioned.
In Science magazine, Sarah Schmidt of Germany’s Heinrich Heine University dubbed the ruling “the death blow for plant biotech in Europe.” What she means is that European companies, universities, and nonprofits will refuse to invest in the technologies we need to feed ourselves.
Once again, bureaucrats are denying us access to the same tools that farmers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States take for granted. Their regulators get it—and so these countries will continue to lead the world in agricultural creativity and production.
Across the European continent, by contrast, we’ll continue to fall behind. We’ll become less competitive. Our incomes will fall and consumers will pay more for their food.
Maybe we should take away the smartphones of ECJ judges. Perhaps then they’d begin to understand the inconvenience and even absurdity of their de facto ban on gene-edited crops.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm in Elvas, Portugal that has been in their family for over 100 years. Growing maize, wheat, barley and green peas, they use no-till or reduced till methods on the full farm. She has grown biotech maize since 2006. Ms. Cruz is President of the Portuguese Association of Conservation Agriculture, a member of the Global Farmer Network and the 2010 Kleckner Award recipient (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).
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