GMOs represent a 'better future'

Objections to genetically modified organisms that are not science-based represent 'technophobia' rather than sound judgement, argues Jan Huitema.

By Jan Huitema

23 Oct 2014

Currently, the possibility for member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on their territory is being reviewed in the European parliament. This dossier is already on its second reading. No wonder, as this topic can lead to profound disputes and arouses much emotion. Already in 2009, commission president José Manuel Barroso had called for a European authorisation system based on science that enabled member states to have freedom to choose regarding their own territory. However, it took the member states nearly four years to agree on the update on reasons and procedures for granting the possibility to cultivate certain GMOs. This clearly shows the delicate nature of the topic.

However, sometimes we end up losing ourselves in technical discussions about authorisation mechanisms, and have stopped considering the endless possibilities that GMOs could bring. As an agricultural engineer myself, I have seen in practice what great things can be done, or are already being done in some of our most advanced European research institutes. As such, I think it is a bad idea if we as lawmakers hamper these innovations. For more than 20 years now, GMOs have been safely consumed. It is time to embrace these technologies and not to let ourselves be led by ungrounded fears.

"For more than 20 years now GMOs have been safely consumed, it is time to embrace these technologies and not to let ourselves be led by ungrounded fears"

The scope of what constitutes a GMO should be more focused. One of the prime examples of this need is a new plant breeding technique called cisgenesis that is unfoundedly being classified as a GMO. It is also a great example because it clearly shows the sometimes ambivalent nature of what we think of when we speak about GMOs. Cisgenesis is a technique that transfers genes within the same species. It could help make potatoes less vulnerable to a very common and devastating potato disease. The European food safety authority concluded back in 2012 that the use of this technique is just as safe as conventional plant breeding and that if the genes used in the breeding process came exclusively from the target species, the product was not a GMO. Yet still we cannot use this technique in Europe, despite the fact that it would reduce the use of chemical crop protectors by over 50 per cent in some member states. It could therefore enhance our food security, result in less food waste and drastically reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector.

For me it is very clear, GMOs represent a better future, and not only for Europe. Take, for example, engineered rice which could help provide vitamin A to the 250,000-500,000 children that turn blind every year because of a dramatic shortage of this specific food supplement. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, GMOs, it may all sound like cruel science fiction, but these are real and promising fields of research that deliver what we humans have always sought while trying to build a better future. Saying that GMOs are not 'natural' or 'sustainable' is therefore not based on sound scientific judgement but rather on technophobia. Sure, we could wait forever in order to find out if something is completely safe, but in this area we should be leaping forward for the greater good.

The updated proposal that currently lies on the table has many good sides. We should be very careful when it comes to human health and our environment. But we should never let ungrounded fears take over, regardless of the member state we are in. An even better, cleaner and more productive agricultural sector to feed an ever growing world population is within reach. Europe surely is united in diversity, but let's allow science to be a common ground.

Read the most recent articles written by Jan Huitema - Fertilisers regulation: EU must keep the door open to innovation