Will the GMO vaccine change our views on genetic engineering?

New vaccines use genetic engineering, but the European Union has generally remained opposed to this technology…

The most prominent version of a COVID-19 vaccine was developed through genetic engineering. The is a novelty in vaccine science, because it allows for easier processes in the way we fight diseases such as COVID-19. As Cornell’s Alliance for Science explains:

“That’s what the “m” in mRNA stands for : messenger. Messenger RNA just carries instructions for the assembly of proteins from the DNA template to the ribosomes. (Proteins do almost everything that matters in the body.) That’s it.

This is useful for vaccines because scientists can easily reconstruct specific genetic sequences that encode for proteins that are unique to the invading virus. In the COVID case, this is the familiar spike protein that enables the coronavirus to enter human cells.”

For the European Union, this meant that the European Parliament had to approve a derogation of existing GMO legislation. In a statement, the Parliament said that “The derogation will facilitate the development, authorisation and consequently availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments”. According to EU legislation dating back to the early 2000s, genetic engineering is generally forbidden, with only a few exceptions. This was particularly driven by the scepticism of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Now that Europe is facing the largest health emergency in our lifetime, scientific innovation is desperately needed. This must be particularly confusing for all patients who could have been given more of a chance of survival if genetic engineering was allowed across the board for all treatments. The unfortunate reality is that GMOs have been so highly politicised that we have moved away from a sober evidence-based conversation. It is now politically viable to allow for scientific innovation to fight this virus but in the area of agriculture, we are still facing a dead end. If it is safe for vaccines, then shouldn’t we also trust the mountain of scientific evidence that it is safe in food?

Genetic engineering is technology, unlike any other. The precise genetic modification of crops has arisen not out of a need to interfere with nature, but out of necessity and thanks to human ingenuity. Early application of genetic engineering stood to solve the problems of complicated environments with challenging climates. As climate change progresses, these challenges will only grow larger.

Picture the state of human medicine prior to the development of certain advances. Ear or mouth infections or pneumonia led to the death of millions until penicillin came into widespread use. What is true in medicine, also applies for modern agriculture: high-yield farming has made our societies more advanced, provided us with a safer food supply, and has provided more food for fewer resources. The technologies of today are incomparable with those of 30 years ago. In fact, the invention of gene-editing has opened a new chapter for agriculture, allowing us to act precisely, with trusted experts. Pinpointed DNA-changes allow us to much more precisely target and understand the changes that we are making.

The GMO vaccine derogation is a first recognition that pinpointed DNA changes are safe and viable in human medicine. However, this was a realisation the Parliament was only able to reach because it was faced with unprecedented urgency. The concept of making this structural reform in the 2001 GMO Directive — which are necessary — is something that needs to be overcome politically. The scientific opinions are there: we know that genetic engineering can be conducted in a safe manner. What we now need to do is shift the conversation on the European stage, overcoming the unscientific narratives of many parliamentarians, and ushering in a new age of science in the European Union.

Originally published here.

Europe’s opposition to gene editing, pesticides means higher food prices for world’s poorest people

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By 2070 the world will be populated by approximately 10.5 billion people. This means that we will need to be able to feed 3 billion additional humans every year. Fortunately, technological advances in agriculture and technology have helped us provide food for an extra 5.5 billion people in the last century compared to the 2 billion humans that populated the earth in 1920. According to the World Food Summit, since 1992, the number of hungry people in lower-middle-income countries has fallen by over 200 million, from 991 million to 790.7 million.

Stanford University estimated that if we would still use the farming technology of 1960, we would need additional farm land of Russia’s size, the world’s largest country, to earn the same yields as current technology. This is a huge success but also leaves us to the task of improving the situation of the remaining children and adults facing hunger as a daily challenge.

Unfortunately, the current political narrative in one of the world’s wealthiest regions seems to ignore the challenges ahead of us and wants us to turn to less efficient farming. The European Union’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy sets out to create a more sustainable food system by the end of this decade. However, looking at the currently proposed ideas, it is worrisome that this new policy framework will achieve the opposite of sustainable farming and lead not just Europe but the entire world in a potential food crisis with massive geopolitical ramifications.

The EU plans to increase the share of organic farming as a total of agricultural production from currently 7.5% to 25%. Additionally, they plan a reduction of 50% in pesticides. At the same time, the F2F strategy does not embrace new technologies that allow farmers to achieve the same yields they are able to produce using the current level of pesticides.

For several reasons, including its low yields and the consequent need to bring more land into agricultural production, organic farming is particularly detrimental to meeting the world’s food demand.

What does this mean for feeding 10.5 billion people in 2070?

world population

More organic farming in Europe means lower yields of EU food production and higher prices for consumers. The shortage in Europe will be likely compensated by additional food imports from other parts of the world. This will lead to a global increase in food prices. For affluent regions of the world such as Europe, this will be rather a nuisance for consumers. This will have very negative consequences for people already living at the edge of existence and facing hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that farmers globally would lose 30%-40% of their crops due to pests and diseases if they don’t have crop protection tools such as insecticides or herbicides on hand. Up to 28% of all liver cancers worldwide can be attributed to aflatoxins, a mycotoxin type. Without allowing farmers to apply fungicides that reduce human exposure to these toxins, we keep risking millions of lives.

food production

In the last 100 years, pesticides have been proven to be a necessary evil in achieving higher and more predictable crop yields. In the past 60 years, we have seen a reduction of 40% in pesticide use per acre, and many less safe substances have been phased out. The emergence of genetically modified crops and the latest breakthroughs in gene editing allows a further reduction of spraying chemicals on the fields.

About 20% of the world population lives in South Asia. Due to India’s caste system farmers of the lowest castes live and farm on land that is more likely to experience regular floodings, with detrimental results for their rice harvest. Gene-edited crops allow the rice to submerge underwater for up to two weeks and still provide high yields. Such technologies are a clear game-changer for the poor and hungry and should be embraced. There’s no humanitarian case against them but a strong one for them.

gene editing game changer

Unfortunately, many critics of pesticides also oppose the use of gene editing. This leads to a dilemma that ultimately brings us to less food produced while global food demand will keep growing. One does not need to be an economist to understand that this will result in higher food prices.

We all have seen the dramatic refugee crisis in 2015 including all the terrible suffering and drowning of children and women in the Mediterranean. While the EU’s policies did not trigger this crisis, our future agricultural policies might cause widespread famines in parts of Africa and Asia. They might start a migration wave we haven’t seen since the migration period in the 5th and 6th centuries. History unfortunately shows that such massive uncontrolled migration streams usually also come with war and unrest.

The ‘western’ idea of making farming more organic will lead to a global food price inflation and hurt those that already struggle. We indeed all share one planet and therefore need to have sensible food policies that acknowledge hunger still being a problem 10% of the world population faces daily. No one, no matter if one is a proponent of mass migration or not, should desire a massive influx of starving people. Several adjustments to the EU’s future policies are needed in order to mitigate many negative drivers of poverty and hunger.

The EU’s Farm to Fork strategy needs to take this into account and not jeopardize our ability to feed an ever-growing population.

Fred Roeder is a consumer advocate and health economist from Germany and has worked in healthcare reform in North America, Europe, and several former Soviet Republics. Since 2012 he has served as an associated researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute. Fred can be found on Twitter @FredCyrusRoeder

Originally published here.

Our “sustainable” food policy leaves us with unsustainable trade

The ambitious targets of the F2F strategy will cause headaches for the EU’s trade policy.

The European Commission has laid out an ambitious plan with the Farm to Fork strategy, which is set to flip agriculture in Europe upside down. For the EU, agriculture is to blame for much of the lack of sustainability in Europe, forcing farmers to pick up much of the burden of the fight against climate change. To do so, it sets out two flagship targets: 25% organic farming by 2030, and a reduction of pesticides by 50% in the same timeframe.

Some experts have pointed out the adverse effects of bringing organic food production up, since a) organic food also needs pesticides, and b) it emits more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional agriculture. The same goes for pesticides: the amount of pesticides used today is incomparable to the level of substances used in the 1960s. Existing chemical substances are declared safe by EU agencies, and countless regulators in the member states. However, those facts are stories in themselves. What is often forgotten in the debate is the import of “unsustainable” food.

On the one hand, Europe’s increasing food standards worsen the effect of illicit trade. Take the example of fraudulent organic food imports. In its 2019 report titled “The control system for organic products has improved, but some challenges remain“, the European Court of Auditors found structural problems with the control system of organic food trade, despite controls being implemented in 1991.

 In a section on the communication on non-compliance, the ECA writes:

“In Bulgaria, we found that some control bodies notified the competent authority about certain types of non-compliances only through their annual reporting. The competent authority did not notice this during its supervisory activities. In Czechia, we found that on average control bodies took 33 days in 2016 and 55 days in 2017 to report a non-compliance affecting the organic status of a product to the competent authority.” 

The report also notes that non-compliance communication delays are 38 calendar days on average in the European Union, while existing regulations stipulate that reporting should happen without delay. This means that non-compliant organic products, i.e. fraudulent organic trade, continue a month on average in the legal circulation of the European single market, before being flagged to consumers. 

If the European Union and its member states are serious about quality control and consumer information and protection, they need detection and reporting mechanisms that outperform the supply chain. The ECA also notes that member states were delayed in their reporting to the European Commission by an average of 4 months and that 50% of all analysed reports were missing information. China is the largest exporter of organic food to the European Union (based on weight, 2018 figures, from ECA report, see below). With significant difficulties concerning quality control of a large range of products originating from China, it should be clear that EU institutions must prioritise the authenticity of these food imports.

Further than that, legal imports will also eventually fall under the category of unsustainable under the rules and regulations of the European Union. This is already leading to a considerable problem with the adoption of the Mercosur-EU free trade agreement, and has in the past prevented agreements like TTIP. Europe will face a difficult choice: double down on the planned standards, and thereby risking to raise protectionist barriers, or even create food insecurity, or rather re-evaluate the necessity for certain environmental goals. 

Some voices want the first option, and prevent unsustainable imports through carbon border taxes, which are import tariffs. They forget to ask themselves, if production in Europe has slowed, will prevention imports really be the solution that manages to keep farming in Europe afloat?

The targets set in the Farm to Fork strategy are set to have dire impacts. According to an impact assessment conducted by USDA, the strategy would lead to a decline in agricultural production between 7-12%. Meanwhile, the EU’s decline in GDP would represent 76% of the decline in the worldwide GDP. Adding to that, the situation of food security and food commodity prices deteriorates significantly under a worldwide adoption scenario, as USDA researchers have found.

Europe should not get ahead of itself and worsen the standards of living for consumers and farmers alike. The Farm to Fork strategy either needs a serious rethink or a long-term moratorium.

Originally published here.

European Green Deal wird für Verbraucher teuer werden

Eine Folgenabschätzung der Europäischen Kommission legt die Kosten des “European Green Deal” dar – für Verbraucher wird es wohl teuer werden. Von Gastautor Fred Röder.

Der für den Green Deal zuständige Exekutiv-Vizepräsident der EU-Kommission Frans Timmermans bei einer Pressekonferenz, Quelle: Shutterstock

Der European Green Deal (EGD) ist einer der Eckpfeiler der Von der Leyen-Kommission in Brüssel. Es ist in den letzten Jahren klar geworden, dass es größeren Wählerdruck gibt um eine grünere Politik zu betreiben. Auf EU-Ebene hat dies zu hitzigen Debatten beim Thema Freihandel, Landwirtschaftsreformen und Emissionshandel geführt.

Der EGD ist ehrgeizig – er strebt an, bis 2050 null Nettoemissionen zu erreichen, wobei “Wirtschaftswachstum von der Ressourcennutzung abgekoppelt” werden soll. Dies soll durch Strukturreformen im Bereich der Landwirtschaft, die Entkarbonisierung des Energiesektors und die Einführung neuer Besteuerungssysteme zur Vermeidung nicht-nachhaltiger Importe nach Europa erreicht werden. Eine entscheidende Frage wird jedoch ausgeklammert:: zu welchen Kosten? Die zusätzlichen Ausgaben für die Europäische Union werden sich auf satte 260 Milliarden Euro pro Jahr (zwischen 2020 und 2030) belaufen. Es wird allerdings nicht nur der EU-Haushalt belastet, sondern direkten Kosten für Verbraucher werden ebenfalls steigen.

Ende September hat die Europäische Kommission eine Folgenabschätzungsstudie veröffentlicht. deren Ergebnisse sowohl von der Kommission als auch in der breiteren Medienlandschaft weitgehend ignoriert wurden. Das ist jedoch überraschend, denn in fast allen Modellen kommt es zu einem Rückgang des europäischen Bruttoinlandsprodukts. Die teilweise gravierenden Einbrüche werden vor allem durch Rückgänge bei Beschäftigung, Konsum und Exporten verursacht. Besonders verheerend wird der wirtschaftliche Schaden für die Mitgliedstaaten sein, die stark von Exportindustrien abhängig sind und für viele Menschen mit begrenzten Wiederbeschäftigungsmöglichkeiten in diesen Ländern. Deshalb wird insbesondere Deutschland die Folgen dieser Politik zu spüren bekommen Als Exportnation wird es Deutschland härter treffen als weniger von Industrie abhängige Länder..

Bereits bestehenden soziale Ungleichheiten werden durch steigenden Energiepreise für Verbraucher noch extremer werden. Wie die Energiewende in Deutschland bereits zeigte, hat ein überstürzter Umstieg  erneuerbaren Energiequellen, der über Subventionsprogramme und nicht Verbrauchernachfrage erfolgte, die Energiepreise für die Verbraucher stark erhöht. In der Folgenabschätzung der Kommission wird dies anerkannt, allerdings in einer Formulierung die von wenig Mitgefühl für die betroffenen Bürger zeugt: “Ein Nachteil aus sozialer Sicht sind die höheren Energiepreise für die Verbraucher”. Es als “Nachteil” zu bezeichnen, wird den immensen Kosten für einkommensschwache Verbraucher nicht gerecht.

In der Debatte um den European Green Deal wird häufig davon gesprochen, dass umweltpolitische Veränderungen die Schaffung von Arbeitsplätzen und Wohlstand ermöglichen. EGD-Superkommissar Frans Timmermans spricht gerne von “grünen Arbeitsplätzen” und bezieht sich dabei auf die Möglichkeiten, die durch die Pläne der Kommission geschaffen werden. Anstatt dass ihn die COVID-19-Krise einen sanften Ton anschlagen lässt, meint Timmermans, dass “unsere Antwort auf die Covid-19-Krise es uns ermöglicht, Arbeitsplätze nicht für Jahre, sondern für Jahrzehnte zu retten und neue Arbeitsplätze zu schaffen. Wir werden vielleicht nie wieder so viel ausgeben können, um unsere Wirtschaft wieder anzukurbeln – und ich hoffe, dass wir das nie wieder tun müssen”. Wird er es sich jetzt noch einmal überlegen, nachdem die Folgenabschätzung seiner eigenen Kommission drei Wochen nach seiner Rede ergeben hat, dass die Kosten für diese Strategie erheblich sind und insbesondere die unteren Einkommensschichten treffen werden?

Angesichts der angespannten Lage, in der die Wirtschaft und dadurch auch die Bürger besonders leiden, sollten die Diskussion um die Energiewende, wie die des EGD, alle relevanten Aspekte beinhalten – auch die negativen Auswirkungen auf die Konsumenten. Natürlich kann man meinen, dass die Kosten des EU-Plans im Angesicht der klimapolitischen Ziele gerechtfertigt sind, doch man sollte dabei nicht vertuschen, dass Verbraucher, Arbeiter, und kleine Unternehmer besonders unter diesen Entscheidungen leiden werden. Eine offene Diskussion im Sinner der Prinzipien Transparenz und verantwortlicher Regierungsführung ist notwendig, bevor Millionen von Menschen die Rechnung für diese Energiepolitik vorgelegt bekommen.

Originally published here.

Fight mycotoxin contamination with modern technology

Every consumer will know this problem: you come home from a long trip but the fruits, vegetables, and yoghurt are still in the fridge. “Expiry dates are just an industry trick to sell more food” is a thought that leads some to disregard the mould that has formed on all of these items over time, or even to consider that the food is therefore healthy.

According to a study by the University of Copenhagen, many consumers believe that mold is a sign of “naturalness”. “What is objectively referred to as dirty is less frightening to us than apples which never rot. Similarly, having dirt under one’s nails has become a sign of health”, says Kia Ditlevsen, associate professor of UCPH’s department of food and resource economics.

However, the reality is very different. Mould carries mycotoxins, which are dangerous to human health, and in some cases, can be deadly. These toxic metabolites are divided into subcategories, namely aflatoxins, ochratoxin A (OTA), fumonisins (FUM), zearalenone (ZEN), and deoxynivalenol (DON – also known as vomitoxin), which can all be ingested through eating contaminated food, including dairy products (as infected animals can carry it into milk, eggs, or meat). 

In a home fridge, mould can develop through bad storage — the electricity went off for long and the cooling chain was interrupted, or direct sun exposure for a long period of time — or simple expiry of the product. 

Most disconcertingly, up to 28% of all liver cancers worldwide can be attributed to aflatoxins, and its immunosuppressant features leave humans weakened against other diseases. The features have been known to modern science since the turn of the century. 

In Africa, this is a deadly epidemic. Aflatoxin exposure is more deadly than exposure to malaria or tuberculosis, with 40% of all liver cancers in Africa being related to it. Mycotoxin contamination can occur through inadequate food storage, but more importantly, it occurs in the absence of the correct crop protection measures, including chemicals.

In modern agriculture, we prevent most of the exposure to mycotoxins by using fungicides. However, chemical crop protection products have been seen with increasingly critical eyes. All too often, those calling for bans of XYZ chemical pretend that farmers ought just use “an alternative”, but all too regularly these alternatives do not exist, or have, as with the example of genetic engineering, been outlawed already.

Gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 can help solve farm safety concerns such as the ones raised by fungi. Fungal pathogens, such as Fusarium proliferatum, which attacks diverse crops, including wheat, maize, rice, asparagus, date palm, garlic, onion, can be studied and better understood using this technology. In the case of Fusarium oxysporum, which befalls both plants and animals, gene-editing can disrupt the genes of interests. A different method of genetic engineering, known as gene-silencing (arrived to through a method known as RNA interference), can create aflatoxin-free transgenic maize. Particularly for developing nations, this would mark a breakthrough improvement of consumer health and food security.

However, if the European Union keeps its current legislation on genetic engineering, and goes even further by exporting these rules and regulations to development aid partners in Africa, then these innovations will not be of use to consumers domestic and abroad. In order to tap into the potential of the gene-revolution, we need to change outdated legislation and Europe and usher in a new century of biotechnology.

We owe it to ourselves.

Putting a price on the European Green Deal

A Commission impact assessment lays out what happens if the EGD is implemented, and it does not look good, writes the Consumer Choice Center’s Bill Wirtz.

The European Green Deal (EGD) is one of the cornerstones of the Von der Leyen Commission. It is hardly controversial to say that European policymakers have responded to public pressure with more environmentally friendly policies, which have, in turn, created heated debates over many other EU policies, ranging from CAP reform to the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement or the reform of the Emissions Trading System.

The EGD is ambitious – it seeks out to reach zero net emissions by 2050, with “economic growth decoupled from resource use“. It intends to do so through structural reform in the field of agriculture, decarbonising the energy sector, and laying out new taxation schemes to avoid unsustainable imports into Europe. However, the appropriate question is: at what cost? The additional expenditure for the European Union per year (between 2020 and 2030) will be a whopping €260bn. But it does not stop there.

At the end of September, the European Commission released an impact assessment that answers this question. This document has largely remained uncommented by Commission officials, or in the broader media landscape, which is surprising because it contains crucial data points. For once, in most models laid out in the assessment, GDP is expected to shrink. This is in close relationship with declines in employment, consumption, and exports. The latter will be particularly devastating for countries that heavily rely on export industries, which employ people with limited re-employment opportunities. As service industries – such as the financial sector – will be less affected, this will widen the opportunity gap in the labour market.

“We should be transparent about the effects of the European Green Deal, especially if it implies a worsened situation for consumers”

Another weight on existing inequalities will be rising energy prices for consumers. As the German energy shift (Energiewende) has shown already, a quick change to renewable energy sources, arrived through subsidisation programmes, has sharply increased consumer energy prices. The Commission’s impact assessment recognises that, though in a way that puts into question their consideration of the importance of social sustainability: “A drawback from a social perspective are the higher energy prices for consumers.” Calling it a “drawback” hardly does the immense cost for low-income consumers any justice.

A common narrative in the debate surrounding the EGD is that environmental policy shifts enable job and wealth creation. EGD Commissioner Frans Timmermans likes to talk about “green jobs”, referring to the opportunities created by the Commission’s plans. Instead of the COVID-19 crisis giving him pause, Timmermans says that “our response to the COVID-19 crisis allows us to save jobs not for years but for decades to come, and create new jobs. We may never again spend as much to reboot our economy – and I sure I hope we will never again have to.” Will he reconsider now that the impact assessment of his own Commission revealed three weeks after his speech that the cost for this strategy is significant? You would be courageous to hold your breath.

Given the current situation surrounding COVID-19, as GDP contraction expectations approach those of the 2008 financial crisis, we cannot adopt these kinds of policies without proper consideration. Some will claim that the price is that the noble goal justifies the means, but in any way, we should be transparent about the effects of the European Green Deal, especially if it implies a worsened situation for consumers. We owe it to the principles of transparency and accountable governance.

Originally published here.

Il faut repenser, non réformer, la PAC

Les institutions de l’Union européenne renégocient la structure et les ambitions de la politique agricole commune (PAC). Les différents groupes politiques jonglent avec des propositions écologiques, plus ambitieuses les unes que les autres, sans le moindre esprit critique envers le système des paiements en lui-même. Dans quelle autre industrie du monde serions-nous prêts à subventionner structurellement un secteur entier, indépendamment de toute analyse des véritables besoins des consommateurs ?

Mon intention n’est pas de contredire tout ce que le Parlement européen a décidé dans sa éunion plénière de la semaine du 19 octobre. En effet, il est important de souligner un point positif : les parlementaires se sont prononcés pour une limitation des paiements directs aux paysans jusqu’à un maximum de 100.000 €. Ce plafond est une réaction aux faits qu’une grande partie des paiements reviennent à des personnes moins méritantes que d’autres. Il garantit de réduire les pressions corporatistes de cette
politique agricole commune.

En République tchèque, le plus gros bénéficiaire des subventions de la
PAC est Andrej Babis, un milliardaire agronome qui détient également une
grande partie des médias du pays. Ses entreprises en République tchèque ont perçu au moins 37 millions € de subventions agricoles l’an dernier. Vous l’ignorez peut-être, mais Andrej Babis est le Premier ministre de République tchèque et est donc responsable de la redistribution de cet argent.

En Bulgarie, les subventions sont devenues le bienêtre de l’élite agricole. L’Académie bulgare des sciences a constaté que 75% des subventions agricoles européennes finissent entre les mains d’environ 100 individus. Dans un article intitulé «The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions» de novembre de l’année passée, le New York Times avait d’ailleurs effectué une enquête à ce propos. Ce que les négociations pour une réforme de la PAC veulent faire est de réunir les ambitions écologiques de deux stratégies européennes : la stratégie «Farm to Fork», qui veut augmenter la production bio en Europe de 7% à 25% et réduire l’utilisation de pesticides de 50% jusqu’en 2030, ainsi que la stratégie pour plus de biodiversité.

Ces deux stratégies ont leurs défauts propres, qui méritent toutes les deux des articles à part entière. Cependant, la question devrait être jusqu’à quel point une subvention structurelle du secteur alimentaire est un petit plus bienvenu et non une aide essentielle. Dans l’UE, le protectionnisme agricole force les consommateurs européens à payer de 1 à 17 % de plus que le reste du monde les produits agricoles. Aux États-Unis, les effets de distorsion du marché sont également évidents.

Ce protectionnisme fonctionne sur trois plans différents : la subvention de nos produits agricoles, les normes et standards de production, ainsi que les barrières tarifaires directs (taxes d’importations). Ces trois facteurs provoquent une réduction drastique de la concurrence et une augmentation des prix des biens présents dans nos supermarchés. Si, dans une telle situation de protectionnisme, le secteur agricole ne peut pas garantir des prix acceptables pour les consommateurs, alors il est temps de se demander si une politique de subvention est vraiment adéquate.

Il est nécessaire de faire quelques comparaisons. Les prix alimentaires en Nouvelle-Zélande et en Australie sont pratiquement identiques aux prix moyens du marché mondial. La raison est que les producteurs agricoles de ces pays sont largement laissés libres de gérer leurs affaires et ne sont pas lourdement encadrés par les autorités. En Europe, un agriculteur moyen doit plus d’un quart de ses re- venus à diverses mesures de soutien de l’État. En Nouvelle-Zélande et en Australie, les agriculteurs doivent simplement gagner leur vie en vendant des produits que les gens veulent manger.

Ces deux pays possèdent certains des secteurs agricoles les plus importants et les plus productifs du monde. Cela présente un certain nombre d’avantages économiques. À titre d’exemple, sans la suppression des aides publiques, la Nouvelle-Zélande n’aurait peut-être jamais développé son secteur d’exportation de sauvignon blanc, désormais célèbre dans le monde entier. Mais c’est aussi un moyen extrêmement simple d’améliorer le niveau de vie des personnes à faible revenu en leur permettant d’obtenir des aliments à plus bas prix. La PAC est un vieil outil politique qui ne correspond ni à la demande du marché, ni aux volontés des consommateurs. Nous avons besoin de plus de liberté pour les producteurs, plus de libre-échange, moins d’interventionnisme étatique dans le do-
maine de l’agriculture, et, par ce fait, plus de choix pour les consommateurs.

Give patients more access: We need zero VAT on medicines in Europe

As Europeans face a public health crisis, we should increase patient accessibility by abolishing VAT on the most essential of goods, writes Bill Wirtz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put health policy back into the hearts and minds of European decision-makers. Before the outbreak, Europe had been in a debate about drug pricing, but it only involved the upper echelon of political institutions. Often blamed are pharmaceutical companies, as well as a lack of price transparency. But having a closer looks at the costs of drugs shows that one of the main drivers for high costs is sales taxes on medicines.

Informed patients will know that all but one European country charge VAT on over-the-counter (OTC) medicine and prescription medicine. Germany charges as much as 19% VAT on both types of medicines, while Denmark ranks the highest, with rates at 25% – that is a fifth of the total price for a drug!

There is only one country that does not charge VAT on prescription or over-the-counter drugs: Malta. Luxembourg (3% each) and Spain (4% each) also show that modest VAT rates on drugs are not a crazy idea but something millions of Europeans already benefit from. Sweden and the UK both charge 0% VAT on prescription medicine, yet 25% and 20% respectively on OTC.

One of the significant roadblocks towards more patient access to drugs is the unfair tax policies of some EU member states. Before talking about eroding intellectual property rights and price setting across the block, we should discuss whether we should have a VAT on medicines.

Especially on prescription medicine, where cancer drugs can reach substantial price levels, VAT rates of up to 25% significantly burden patients and their health insurance. On prescription medicine, there is little sense in first charging value-added tax, and then have national health insurance providers pick up the tab. As for OTC medicine, the implication that just because it isn’t prescribed, it therefore isn’t an essential good, is a blindspot of policy-makers.

Many OTC meds, ranging from drug headache pain relief, heartburn medicine, lip treatments, respiratory remedies, or dermatological creams are not only essential medicines for millions of Europeans; they often act as preventative care. The more we tax these goods, the more we are burdening MDs with non-essential visits.

Following the example of Malta, European countries should lower their VAT rates to 0% on all medicines. The purpose of VAT is to take a cut out of commercial activity, making sure that all commercial transactions pay what is considered their fair share, even those businesses who traditionally don’t pay any company taxes. However, regarding the sale of medicine as a purely commercial transaction, from the standpoint of patients, misses the point. Millions of patients need specific prescription medicine every day, and others rely on the help of over-the-counter drugs to relieve pain or treat problems that do not require professional medical attention.

It is time for European nations to agree on a binding Zero VAT agreement on medicine or at least a cap at 5%, which would reduce drug prices in the double digits, increase accessibility, and create a fairer Europe.

Originally published here.

Let European scientists participate in the gene-revolution

A French scientist has won a Nobel Prize for a technology that has been made illegal for use in agriculture by the European Union…

One wonders how exactly the news was received in the European Commission when two female scientists, one of which French, received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the development of the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9. The discovery of Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and Jenifer Doudna from the University of California has far-reaching positive impacts for the work of medicine, but also for industry and consumers in the area of energy and agriculture. However, due to outdated EU-legislation dating back to the beginning of the century, genetic engineering is not legal to be used in food.

When EU Directive 2001/18/EC (a piece of legislation governing the use of GMOs) was introduced, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jenifer Doudna had not yet developed CRISPR-Cas9. However, in 2018, the European Court of Justice delivered a ruling that declares products derived from directed mutagenesis (gene-editing) illegal under the said directive, because it is a GMO. Whether or not gene-edited foods and GMOs are the same is a scientific conversation that would overwhelm the scope of this article, but for the sake of understanding the irony of the ECJ ruling, readers ought to know this: random mutagenesis is legal under EU law, while gene-editing is not. Random mutagenesis has been practised in Europe for decades, and is less safe than precise gene-editing.

Interestingly, this is not an uninformed take on the matter, but the assessment of the European Commission’s own Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, from a statement back in November 2018. On the issue of random mutagenesis, they also write:

“The resulting mutant organisms (in this case plants) require lengthy screening of the organisms’ characteristics to identify the few mutants that carry a novel desirable feature and do not present any unwanted features. Despite this lengthy screening process, the ultimately selected end products are likely to carry additional mutations beyond the ones resulting in the desired trait, each of which can be considered to be an ‘unintended effect’. Such unintended effects can be harmful, neutral or beneficial with respect to the final product.”

In the absence of listening to its own scientists, the European Union is lagging behind the rest of the world. The Consumer Choice Center has, together with the Genetic Literacy Project, released the Gene Editing Regulation Index, which compares the regulatory leniency of governments in different regions of the world. Needless to say, the European Union does not score well. It is time for policymakers to stand up for science and innovation and let Europe remain a global powerhouse of breakthroughs.

We need to allow European scientists to participate in the gene-revolution, and have them work together with farmers to release the innovations of the future. As I have laid out on the blog of the Consumer Choice Center, recent gene-editing innovations allow us to produce more paper with less resources, and make salmon less prone to disease and more affordable for consumers. Through genetic engineering, we can both fight the challenge of climate and that of increasing population.

Let us usher in a century of innovation in Europe, and let European scientists lead the charge.

Originally published here.

Gene-editing innovations can save us (if we let it)

2020 marked a first in the history of the Nobel Prize. For the first since its creation, a science Nobel Prize has been awarded to two women. Jenifer Doudna from the University of California, and Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the development of CRISPR-Cas9. The gene-editing method revolutionises the scientific understanding and practice of working with genetics, and has widespread applications in the fields of medicine and agriculture.

Together with the Genetic Literacy Project, the CCC released the first Gene-editing Regulation Index, that shows how the world compares in its regulation on gene-editing. Unfortunately, we see that regions such as Europe have, through outdated legislation, limited their ability to innovate.

Let’s take a look at three recent innovations in the realm of gene-editing.

Gene-edited trees

Researchers at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology in Belgium, together with researchers at the University of Wisconsin have discovered, through CRISPR-Cas9, a method of reducing the amount of lignin in trees, which eases the process of making paper. This would reduce the carbon footprint of the paper industry, as well as for the production of bio-fuels and bio-based materials. 

The communication from the entrepreneurial non-profit research institute VIB, which works in close partnership with five universities in Flanders, Belgium — Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Hasselt University — also says: “The applications of this method are not only restricted to lignin but might also be useful to engineer other traits in crops, providing a versatile new breeding tool to improve agricultural productivity.”

Gene-edited salmon

Researchers at the Norwegian institute Nofima are investigating whether CRISPR-Cas9 can help reduce or completely squash the prevalence of sea lice in Atlantic salmon. It is known that North American salmon does not deal with sea lice, thus the scientists are trying to replicate the phenomenon through genetic engineering.

If successful, this does not imply that gene-edited fish will be available immediately, as there are still a lot of procedural and regulatory hurdles to overcome. That said, making Atlantic salmon immune to lice would mean more efficient fishing in European waters, and more affordable salmon for European consumers.

Gene-editing against opioid overdoses

With tens of thousands of people dying each year of opioid overdoses, Professor of Pharmacology at Oklahoma State University Craig Stevens writes that it doesn’t have to be that way. Using CRISPR-Cas9, he claims that gene-editing a patient’s brain would prevent opioids bind opioid receptors on respiratory neurons — in plain English: during an opioid overdose, the patient dies because he or she stops breathing. Through gene-editing the brains of 10% of opioid patients, Stevens claims that the United States could save thousands of lives and save $43 billion.

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