At a recent event on plant breeding, I engaged in a conversation with several people involved in the scientific discussion surrounding New Breeding Techniques (NBTs). Despite the fact that the gene-editing technology CRISPR Cas-9 was developed by a European scientist, Emmanuelle Charpentier, it remains illegal to be used in agriculture on this continent – based on an outdated directive on genetic modification from 2001, and an ECJ court case interpreting it in 2018. I explained that I believe that the EU's approach towards the precautionary principle has been distorted and hampers innovation – and while scrambling for an analogy, said, "imagine this system of governance had existed during the invention of rail transport".
The invention of railways dates back to 16th century Germany when wagons were still pulled by horses on wooden rails. By the late 1700s, engineers substituted wooden rails with iron, leading to the introduction of tramways. The first horse-drawn tramway began operating in the UK in 1807. It was only towards the middle of the century that the steam-powered locomotive became viable for railways, yet with innovation came those who argued for caution.
It might appear strange to the current reader who is used to railways being lauded as the solution for much of Europe's mobility aches, and as an ambition to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but during England's Victorian age railways were under fire for causing "railways madness". Edwin Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller wrote in The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present, trains were believed to "injure the brain." Unlike the Clean Living Movement in the United States – which purported the idea that tea would mentally injure women – the railway madness story was backed up by anecdotal evidence. During the 1860s, a large amount of news stories emerged, telling stories of railway passengers losing their minds during train trips. Tales of passengers stripping naked and leaning out of windows, attacking others with a variety of weapons, including knives, all while calming down after the train had come to a stop, inspired fear in the regular users of this means of transportation.
Media stories added fuel to the fire by running headlines about how train journeys were perilous and unpredictable and that trains themselves were to blame for the madness of their travellers. They, at times, omitted that trains were used by those who had escaped mental asylums and that trains in themselves are not immune to violence and crime in the same way any other public area would be. Today, we know that mental health support is essential to curbing these kinds of incidents and that instead of fear and stigma, many people in our society need help. We look at the hysteria of the Victorian age with a sense of modern-day superiority, maybe justifiably. However, let's imagine what would happen if train travel had never been invented and was introduced to the EU in 2022.
As reports of train journeys from the United States echo into the European media sphere, individual member states pass a moratorium on tenders for rail development. The up-and-coming railway industry promises great economic development for Europe, but activist groups cast doubt upon the efficiency and necessity of railways. "We know to what extent the United States disregards the safety of its citizens. But do you want your government to allow the madness to spread across our society by these mind-eating machines? Sign our petition", reads a flyer by "European Citizens for Travel Safety", handed out during a protest in front of the European Commission. The activists have dressed up as trains, running through a large figurine of a human head. The Daily Mail wrote about the protest, headlining "Brave protesters OBLITERATE Eurocrats for allowing mind-bending killer-choo-choos from entering cities".
Lawmakers in the European Parliament react to public pressure, calling upon the European Commission to uphold the precautionary principle. The Joint Research Centre of the EU had released data showing that there was no connection between railways and the mental health troubles of its passengers, leading to a hearing in Parliament in which MEPs quizzed scientists about their ties to the railway industry. "You pretend that you are independent, but just eight years ago, you published a study on railway safety, which had logistical and financial support by the railway industry", investigates one MEP from the Netherlands. While the researcher explains that it is common for scientists to work together with industry on analyzing technological innovation, she is interrupted by another MEP from Germany: "A man in my hometown just returned from the United States where he took one of "safe trains" as you call them, and his wife tells me they are now joining a class-action lawsuit for the mental health troubles he got by using one of these machines. Until you prove to me that he WASN'T hurt by the train, I believe they need to remain illegal in Europe. We are not the Wild West, where companies get to experiment on citizens."
Following a lengthy consultation procedure, and despite safety assessments that showed that railways had none of the effects they were accused of causing, the European Union affirms its commitment to having the highest consumer safety standards in the world. Railway travel remains illegal, and people use predominantly internal combustion engines to move between cities. Ten years later, the Commission compiled an urgent report showing that citizens around the world are able to travel from A to B much faster than Europeans. It will take another 20 years to verify the railway ban’s effect on this underperformance.
Some readers may treat this analogy as facetious and ill-advised, given that Europe allows for a lot of technological innovation and even encourages it. My goal is not to claim that Europe is allergic to innovation but to express disbelief at how the EU cannot grasp the opportunities of gene editing despite its safety and precision. For reference: untargeted mutagenesis through ionizing radiation is perfectly legal in Europe, including for organic farming products, despite being a considerably less precise technique for plant breeding than NBTs. Also, approving NBTs would not mean that EFSA and other food safety agencies would be removed from the approval process of seeds – in fact, we would learn more about them through the work of EU agencies.
Genetic engineering was used for the development of mRNA vaccines, in turn, used during the COVID-19 pandemic. For all intents and purposes, the European Union can approve this technology when it acknowledges the urgency. For gene-editing in our food system, which presents the opportunity to make our food healthier and more sustainable (by being able to feed an ever-growing world population), has yet to recognize this urgency.
Let's hope we don't look back at our current regulatory standards in 200 years the same way we look back at the Victorian fear of trains.
Bill Wirtz is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumer Choice Center. He published "It's in our genes: Seizing the opportunities of genetic engineering in agriculture".