Call it the “Coalition of the Ignorant.” By the first week of October, 17 European countries — including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland — had used new European Union rules to announce bans on the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
These prohibitions expose the worrying reality of how far Europe has gone in setting itself against modern science. True, the bans do not apply directly to scientific research, and a few countries — led by England — have declared themselves open to cultivation of genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s. But the chilling effect on biotech science in Europe will be dramatic: Why would anyone spend years developing genetically modified crops in the knowledge that they will most likely be outlawed by government fiat?
In effect, the Continent is shutting up shop for an entire field of human scientific and technological endeavor. This is analogous to America’s declaring an automobile boycott in 1910, or Europe’s prohibiting the printing press in the 15th century.
Beginning with Scotland’s prohibition on domestic genetically modified crop cultivation on Aug. 9, Europe’s scientists and farmers watched with mounting dismay as other countries followed suit. Following the Scottish decision, signatories from numerous scientific organizations and academic institutions wrote to the Scottish government to express grave concern “about the potential negative effect on science in Scotland.”
The appeal went unheeded. Without a trace of embarrassment, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Nationalist Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, admitted that the first minister’s science adviser had not been consulted because the decision “wasn’t based on scientific evidence.” Instead, the priority was to protect the “clean green image” of the country’s produce, according to the secretary for rural affairs, food and environment.
This decision of a majority of European countries to apparently ignore their own experts may undermine any claim to the moral high ground at the coming Paris talks on climate change. The worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused global warming. Yet this inconvenient truth on G.M.O.s — that they’re as safe as conventionally cultivated food — is ignored when ideological interests are threatened.
The scientific community is facing a new European reality. Last November, the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, chose not to reappoint Prof. Anne Glover as his science adviser after lobbying by Greenpeace and other environmental groups.
“We hope that you as the incoming Commission president will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser,” they wrote.
Never mind that Professor Glover’s advice on G.M.O. safety reflected the scientific consensus. Mr. Juncker, hoping to make his political life easier, complied with their demand. Europe now has no chief scientific adviser.
Facing this hostile climate, the crop biotech sector in Europe is dying. The plant science division of the agrochemical giant BASF closed its doors in Germany back in 2012, shifting some operations to the friendlier climes of the United States. In the public sector, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, the leading voice of science in Europe, lamented in 2013: “The E.U. is falling behind international competitors in agricultural innovation and this has implications for E.U. goals for science and innovation.”
In addition, the council is worried that Europe’s G.M.O. phobia may slam the door on new technologies. For example, the gene-editing tool known as Crispr is on the brink of revolutionizing the field of genetics internationally.
The historical irony is that Europe once led in biotech: In 1983, Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell at the University of Ghent in Belgium introduced the world to modern plant genetic engineering. Today, however, no rational young scientist interested in molecular techniques of crop breeding would choose a base in Continental Europe.
Meanwhile, hypocrisy rules: Europe imports over 30 million tons per year of corn and soy-based animal feeds, the vast majority of which are genetically modified, for its livestock industry. Imports are preferred to European crops partly because biotech traits make them cheaper. Yet these same traits — such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance — are now widely barred from domestic use.
In essence, Europe has chosen chemistry over biology: It will not be able to reduce fungicide applications by adopting genetically modified blight-resistant potatoes; nor can it cut down on insecticide sprays, since it won’t allow genetically modified insect-resistant crops to be grown. The data is clear: One study found that G.M.O. cultivation has led to a 40 percent reduction in insecticide spraying worldwide.
Shielded from the winds of change behind a $50 billion wall of subsidies thanks to the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, farmers in Europe can, arguably, afford to lose their competitive edge. But a 2011 survey estimated that European farmers’ failure to adopt G.M. crops had resulted in lost revenue of between 500 million and one billion euros per year. A former British environment minister complained last year that Europe was becoming a “museum of world farming.”
The new anti-G.M.O. policy aligns Europe with some unsavory allies. Russia has proudly proclaimed a prohibition on G.M.O. crops. So has Zimbabwe, where anti-Western conspiracy theories about biotech companies have become part of the ruling party’s ideology. According to Tobaiwa Mudede, a crony of President Robert Mugabe, “sexual dysfunction is a huge problem in the U.S.A., where males become impotent around the age of 24, at the prime of life” — which he linked to G.M.O. foods.
I have witnessed the effects of such propaganda myself. While giving a talk about G.M.O.s two years ago in rural Tanzania, I was interrupted by an organic farmer who said he was determined never to grow biotech crops. His grounds? That they’d turn his children homosexual.
Not just autocrats and crazies think this way. Perfectly sensible African policy makers still look to Europe for leadership; when I travel there, I am often asked why Africans should risk eating foods that Europe bars.
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Following Europe’s lead, no country in sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa currently permits the cultivation of G.M.O. food crops. Yet from drought-tolerant maize to virus-resistant cassava, many biotech traits are being developed that could quickly improve the livelihoods of poorer African farmers.
I have spent time with malnourished children in Tanzania whose families were going hungry because cassava crops were wiped out by brown-streak disease. That was particularly painful because in neighboring Uganda I had recently visited trial plots of genetically modified cassava that demonstrated complete resistance to the virus. The faces of the hungry children come to mind every time I hear European politicians boast about their country’s G.M.O. ban and demand that the rest of the world follow suit — as Scotland’s minister did in August.
Thanks to Europe’s Coalition of the Ignorant, we are witnessing a historic injustice perpetrated by the well fed on the food insecure. Europe’s stance, if taken up internationally, risks marginalizing a critically important technology that we must surely employ if humanity is to feed itself sustainably in an increasingly difficult and challenging future. I can only hope that the Continent’s policy makers come to their senses before it is too late.
Mark Lynas is the political director for the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University and a co-author, most recently, of An Ecomodernist Manifesto.