By Benjamin Ferrer
Ironclad EU policies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is unjustified on the basis of the perceived “unnaturalness” of GMO plants and may stand in the way of important agricultural innovation that could provide more sustainable and climate-friendly solutions. This is according to a new study from the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark, published in the journal Transgenic Research. Rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO) are so restrictive that it is virtually impossible to attain authorization for cultivating a GMO crop within the EU, the paper contends.
The study underscores that even when a GMO crop is authorized, individual member states may still ban the crop. Furthermore, they add that the practice of genetically modifying plants is consistent with the principles of organic farming.
“If we compare the pre-authorization procedure that GMO products undergo with those for conventionally cultivated crops, it is clear that GMOs are required to meet much stricter demands – with reference to the supposed risks that GMO crops pose,” explains Dr. Andreas Christiansen, co-author of the study alongside Professor Klemens Kappel and Associate Professor Martin Marchman Andersen.
“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 further stresses.
A rise in clean label food and beverage trends, which denotes a demand for “everything from nature” produce, ultimately adds further hindrance to the progression of GMO technologies. The researchers argue that an outspread shift in consumer mentality is needed in order for regulatory revisions to progress.
“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,” notes Dr. Christiansen.
What constitutes a “natural” plant?
A 2010 Eurobarometer survey revealed that 70 percent of Europeans agree that a 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” associated with GMOs can justify bans and restrictive legislation.
“Unnaturalness has many different meanings so even though there are cogent arguments that GMOs in some respects are more unnatural than non-GMOs, there are also cogent arguments that many GMOs are just as natural or unnatural as their conventional counterparts,” says Dr. Christiansen.
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 (i.e. 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.
Dr. Christiansen notes that “unnaturalness” should be distinguished by the amount of alterations made to a plant. Within this context, he explains, conventionally bred plants are not much different from genetically modified crops, as both contain altered genetic codes. “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.”
At the end of last year, researchers questioned whether the current regulatory framework for GMOs is adequate in the light of emerging technologies in the field of genome editing.
GMOs produce higher yields than organic farming
Naturalness and organic farming are commonly regarded as synonymous, with the desire to promote organic farming having been used repeatedly as an argument for curbing the use of GMOs – a practice prohibited in organic farming. Across the industry, food and beverage producers have made ubiquitous use of the term “non-GMO” as a hallmark of clean labeling. However, the researchers contest that the agenda of promoting organic farming is not enough to justify a ban on GMOs, as its full potential remains untapped.
“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. 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,” Dr. Christiansen explains.
He also stressed that we must also ask ourselves whether organic farming is always better than the alternatives. “In one very important respect, GMOs 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,” he concludes.