Public Service Review: European Science and Technology - Issue 5
What's in it for us?
04 January 2010
Eva Kjer Hansen, Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, explores the issues surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms and the use of GM crops
The debate on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is riddled with myths. Some 20% of all Europeans wrongly believe their own genes can be modified if they eat food from genetically modified (GM) crops. And one-in-three believes that genes are found only in GM tomatoes and not in conventional tomatoes.
In Denmark, as in most parts of Europe, there is a fairly large public and political resistance to the cultivation and use of GM crops. People tend to accept the use of GMOs for production of medicine but reject their cultivation.
Sound political choice should be based on a sound political debate. So far, the debate has focused mainly on the possible risks associated with GM crops. Unfortunately, there has been very little focus on the opportunities and benefits that modern biotechnology can provide to society. Therefore, I considered it necessary to produce a synthesis of the actual facts on GMOs.
As a result, the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries recently published a report of the current knowledge on GM crops, containing contributions from several Danish research institutions.
The report lists both research results and facts based on practical experience from the cultivation of GM crops throughout the world.
One of the conclusions is that GM crops are not the solution to all the challenges we face, but are an important tool to be taken into account when ensuring a stable and increasing food supply in years to come.
Natural resources under pressure
Already, climate change and new habits of consumers in developing countries have put our limited agricultural resources under pressure. Within the coming 50 years, Earth's population will reach nine billion, a fact that will put an even greater burden on the resources of our planet, and challenge both the climate and environment even more than it is today.
Therefore, one thing is certain: when it comes to food supply, we need to consider all alternatives, including GMOs.
GMOs in the EU – importance and scepticism
As in most other EU countries, food made from GMOs are rare in Denmark at the moment. On the other hand, GM animal feed for livestock is widely used in Denmark, as well as in most other EU countries. The use of GM protein feed is an absolute necessity for EU breeders. Furthermore, maintaining livestock production within the EU further ensures quality, animal welfare and food safety to a high standard for the benefit of the European consumer.
GMOs are regulated thoroughly by EU legislation, both to ensure the rights and safety of the consumer, and to ensure the safety of the environment. This means that we have all the necessary legislation in place to ensure safe use of GMOs.
Nevertheless, the use of GMOs is still controversial, and the negative focus in the debate has a number of negative consequences for agriculture and the food industry, which includes:
• Lengthy authorisation procedures make it less attractive to develop new GM crops;
• Zero tolerance for non-authorised GMOs impedes trade with other countries;
• Lack of a threshold for GMOs in seed causes problems for cross-border trade within the EU.
In the end, this means higher food prices for the EU consumer and lower competitive power for the European food industry on the world market.
The sceptic debate
Today, a considerable part of the GMO debate is dominated by the widespread scepticism and resistance towards GMOs in EU countries. The scepticism plays an important role in the limited use of GM products in the EU's food production.
Opinion polls with regard to gene technology, conducted in Denmark as well as in the rest of Europe, show that opinions are closely related to whether people find the use of GM products and technology beneficial or not.
People tend to differentiate between various forms of benefits, from self-interest over private or commercial benefits, to broader benefits related to society as a whole. Much indicates that self-interest and commercial benefits are not enough to legitimise the use of gene technology to the public. What is important to the public is the benefit of GM crops to society.
Taking into account the global environmental and economic challenges that we face, cultivation of GM crops must be considered seriously. If science says GM crops do not constitute a risk, on whose behalf do we then exclude them? And if GM crops can contribute to the solution of the main challenges for the planet, why should we then rule them out?
One could be of the opinion that the issue is simple: we should authorise GMOs when they have been assessed as safe. The decisive criterion for authorisation should be based on the absence of risks to human and animal health, and for the environment.
Recently, however, some have expressed a political wish to include socio-economic aspects as part of the approval process. Therefore, we need a sound debate over if and how we should include socio-economic benefits and risks of GMOs in the authorisation process.
Can socio-economic benefits be calculated?
The issue of socio-economic benefits as a criterion raises a central question: how to calculate the benefits.
With regard to the current GMO legislation, the overall purpose of regulation is to ensure cultivation and marketing of GMOs does not lead to undesired effects on the health of people and animals or the environment. The authorisation is primarily based on risk assessments.
The socio-economic benefits of a GM crop are not taken into account. The freedom to act by individuals (and businesses) can generally only be restricted by law on a scientific ground, showing the specific action can result in injury to others, including damage to the environment. Whether or not genetically modified crops represent a benefit will, in the last resort, depend on whether they are accepted by the consumers.
The ethical challenge
To prohibit the marketing of products on the basis of a central assessment of what is good for the people or morally unacceptable is a very radical step.
There can be disagreements on the relevant ethical assessment. What one person may perceive as, for example, an unacceptable intervention in nature's order, will be perceived by another as a technology completely without problems, on which it would be unacceptable to place religiously motivated limits.
The challenge of socio-economic benefits and risks is not a simple one. I believe that the approval of GM crops should – now as before – be based on an assessment of the consequences for health and environment. If a GM crop is dangerous, it should be prohibited. If not, it should be allowed. Nevertheless, I believe that socio-economic consequences should be taken into account.
A description of the socio-economic benefits can help clarify why use of a GM crop is interesting for society.
For the benefit of the public, agriculture and industry, we must ensure that the approval process on GMOs is carried through much faster than today. If a crop is actually both safe and beneficial, why should we then delay the approval?
From my point of view, the issue of possible inclusion of socio-economic and ethical considerations as part of the approval process needs to be discussed thoroughly in the relevant political forums. How can we take into account the possible socio-economic benefits in a way that speeds up the approval process, rather than blocking it?
I hope we can soon discuss this matter in relevant political areas within the EU, and thereby ensure agriculture and industry in the future have access to all relevant tools to deliver healthy and cheap food to the people of the world.