THE European Union’s (EU) policy on genetically modified organisms (GMO) is extremely strict and prevents new GMO crops from being authorised.
The policy is based on arguments about the risk and unnaturalness of GMO plants – but these arguments cannot justify the restrictive regulation, three researchers conclude in a new study in the journal Transgenic Research.
They also conclude that the use of GMO plants is consistent with the principles of organic farming.
The EU’s rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO) are so restrictive that it is virtually impossible to get an authorisation for cultivating a GMO crop within the EU – which means that only one GMO crop has hitherto been authorised in the EU.
And even if a GMO crop is authorised, individual member states may still ban the crop.
This is untenable, argue three researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark in a new article in the scientific journal Transgenic Research, because EU regulation may stand in the way of important agricultural innovation that could provide more sustainable and climate-friendly solutions – and because the strict regulation cannot be justified.
“If we compare the pre-authorization procedure that GMO products undergo with those for conventionally cultivated crops, it is clear that GMO’s are required to meet much stricter demands – with reference to the supposed risks that GMO crops pose,” postdoc Andreas Christiansen said.
“But the fact that a crop has been genetically modified does not in itself pose a risk. If there is risk involved, it is connected to the act of introducing a new variety with unfamiliar traits, which may have adverse effects on the environment or the health of humans and animals.”
Dr Christiansen said: “It is crucial to understand that the introduction of new varieties with compositional differences always poses a risk whether they are genetically modified or not. Our point is that GMO crops should not be treated differently than similar products when the risks they pose to the environment and people are comparable. This is the reason GMO crops have been regulated as other novel varieties in the US for years.”
When is a plant natural?
In a 2010 Eurobarometer survey, 70 per cent of Europeans agreed “that GMO food is fundamentally unnatural”.
Unnaturalness is a common argument against GMO crops and foods, and it is mentioned specifically in EU legislation.
What the researchers are trying to ascertain is whether the kind of “unnaturalness” which GMOs supposedly possess can justify bans and restrictive legislation.
“Unnaturalness, firstly, has many different meanings so even though there are cogent arguments that GMO’s in some respects are more unnatural than non-GMO’s, there are also cogent arguments that many GMO’s are just as natural or unnatural as their conventional counterparts,” Dr Christiansen said.
“One of the arguments is that the more changes human beings have made to a plant, the more unnatural it is. This makes a GMO more unnatural in the sense that it has been subjected to at least one more change than the conventionally bred plant upon which it is based.
“The conventionally bred plant, conversely, is much more unnatural than its wild ancestor, and has mutated so many times that it may in some cases be difficult to see any relation between to two. It is, in other words, really difficult to construct a solid argument to the effect that the distinction between natural and unnatural can warrant stricter regulation of GMO’s – even if we consider the best philosophical arguments for the value of nature and naturalness.”
According to the researchers, many novel gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas9, are much more precise and cause fewer alterations in plants than traditional breeding methods, in which plant seeds, for example, are washed with chemicals in order to provoke mutations.
CRISPR/Cas9 is nonetheless also included in the restrictive EU legislation whereas the chemically induced breeding is not.
GMO higher yields than organic
Naturalness and organic farming are often thought of as synonymous, and the desire to promote organic farming has been used as an argument for curbing the use of GMOs, which is prohibited in organic farming.
But can a wish to promote organic farming justify a ban on GMOs?
“Even if we accept that organic farming is superior because it is more sustainable or environmentally friendly, it will be difficult to justify the restrictive policy on GMO, because at least some GMOs are consistent with these aims of organic farming,” Dr Christiansen said.
“And what’s more, current GMOs are at least as good as conventional farming in terms of sustainability, so it would not make sense to impose stricter regulation on GMOs than conventional farming as far as sustainability goes.
“But we must also ask ourselves whether organic farming is always better than the alternatives. In one very important respect, GMO may be superior to organic farming: it can produce higher yields without putting more strain on the environment, which will make it possible to increase food production without increasing the area of land used for farming. This will be extremely important if we are to meet projected future food needs.”
Source: University of Copenhagen – Faculty of Humanities
Dr Christiansen has co-authored the article “Are current EU policies on GMO justified?” in Transgenic Research with Professor Klemens Kappel and Associate Professor Martin Marchman Andersen.
Read more about the research project Convergent ethics and the ethics of controversy (CEEC) at the University of Copenhagen (https://mcc.ku.dk/research/focus-areas/ceec/), which investigates questions of ethics and regulation of new biotechnologies.=