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Agriculture

Scientific cherry-picking

Power to the young Greens.

“We Greens in the Bundestag stand for a rural-ecological agriculture”, it says on the website of the Green parliamentary group. They advocate GM-free food, low-pesticide agriculture, more organic farming and regional marketing. The Greens take “stand for” seriously, as the party now demands nothing less than a complete ban on industrial agriculture. After years in which the organic shop meant a niche for consumers who wanted to shop differently, organic products should now become compulsory.

This is also making waves abroad. The Daily Telegraph writes that the image of the Greens as a “prohibition party” is returning. Why this is making waves is clear. The Greens are experiencing a constant influx of voters in Germany, and so they and their policies are to be taken as seriously as during their last participation in the federal government.

The Greens also want to ban the gene-editing, which is known through techniques such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). With these systems, researchers can permanently alter genes in living cells and organisms and in future correct mutations at exact locations in the human genome and thus treat genetic causes of disease. The same technology can also be used in agriculture. The Greens see “genome editing” as the same as the question of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are also banned.

Here, the Green position is no longer in line with that of its own youth. Already last year, the Green youth in Lower Saxony demanded “a new start for the debate on green genetic engineering without dogmas and a political argumentation on a scientific basis”.

This year, too, there was new criticism. In the party resolution of the Green Youth Saxony-Anhalt it says at the end of March:

“Today it is of fundamental importance to rethink this historical position [a complete ban on GMOs] in order to tackle the coming global challenges.”

The scientific remoteness of the Greens is surprising, since the environmentalists usually argue very scientifically about climate change. Even if the resulting policy proposals are radical and daring, they rigorously cite scientific studies as the basis for their demands. In agriculture, on the other hand, the party behaves dogmatically.

Those who defend GMOs and pesticides in science and politics must have been bought by large international corporations. Sceptics of climate change work the same way here: scientists who prove climate change must have been bought by some influential circles.

The scientific method and fact-based politics fall short of attention.

Where is all this going? Genome editing is important for further scientific progress, but recent decisions by the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the resistance of various environmental activists in Germany quickly put an end to its potential.

For farmers, this means less progress and thus the continued use of equally unpopular pesticides, or copper as a fungicide in organic farming. Meanwhile, research abroad is being accelerated. A further compartmentalisation in trade policy would then again be necessary in order to “protect” the paralysed farmers in Europe from foreign products.

Consumers would lack the choice after such bans. Organic or non-organic remains a major public debate. However, it should not be solved by abolishing conventional agriculture, but by education and innovation.

The Young Greens in Saxony-Anhalt write in one of their demands:

“We reject in principle the stirring up of irrational fears to reach a political goal, this applies also to genetic engineering.”

That’s a good start.

Originally published here.

Sustainability: the European word-battle

It will mean something different to everyone.

The Farm to Fork Strategy of the European Union attempts to foster sustainability in the agricultural sector. While sustainability is a laudable goal in a general sense, it has a wide range of possible meanings and applications. EU institutions have adequately defined the word. 

It is necessary to establish a clear and precise definition of what we mean by sustainability, as only this will allow us to set concrete goals and objectives and develop clear and precise metrics to track our progress in achieving them.  The implication from the European Commission seems to be that organic agriculture is essentially synonymous with sustainable agriculture. But that is a mere assumption, made without reference to a host of practical concerns and obviating any real scientific examination of the facts. 

The European Commission’s web page for sustainable agriculture lauds the improvements on sustainability made by the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), yet it has not established a definition that matches the goals met by the policy. The Farm to Fork Strategy is a political roadmap that outlines certain numerical goals, yet the claim that these goals are sustainable is merely implied. In order for European consumers to understand the objectives of the European Union in the realm of sustainable agriculture, we need to establish definitions that concisely describe what sustainable agriculture is.

In any given webinar or even the word sustainability can be thrown meaninglessly, often supporting the speaker’s agenda. That speaker is often a supporter of agro-ecology or the food production system that rejects the advancements of modern agriculture. And that is fair game; those advocates have to have their voice in the democratic process. That said, they are often co-opting a term that has yet to be well-defined. You can take the test: stop an average consumer in the street and ask whether we should want more sustainable food. Who would possibly disagree with that? As to whether we should support sustainable food without defining what that means, is much like asking whether or not we should want “good” food. We will have different understandings of what that implies. In the organic sector, standards of sustainability would not be met.

Credible research has established that moving all current farming to organic farming would increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70% . Researchers analysed the hypothetical move of Welsh and English farm production to organic, and found that reduced crop yields in organic farming increased the need to import food from overseas. Including the GHGs emitted growing that food abroad — a part of the equation often ignored advocates of organic agriculture — otal GHGs emitted would increase between 21% in the best-case scenario to an astounding 70%, depending on how much natural habitat and forest had to be cleared to make up for the decline caused by England’s and Wales’ switch to organic production. For the European Union, which aims at a 25% organic production target in Europe, the impact of overseas imports would be even more considerable. While the study assumed England and Wales would import the majority of the extra food they needed from Europe, a 25% organic EU would be making up its production deficits by importing food grown in less developed countries with considerably less efficient farming methods, which would significantly increase emissions.

So while we’re in the business of defining sustainability, why don’t we deal with the facts and only the facts?

Originally published here.

Farm-to-Fork plan suggests Europe wants sustainable farming. So why do EU politicians ignore the ‘green’ benefits of GM crops?

There is ongoing disagreement between the popularly elected European Parliament and the executives in the European Commission over approvals of “genetically modified” (GM) crops, which are made with modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. In December, members of the European Parliament objected to authorizations of no fewer than five new GM crops — one soybean and four corn (maize) varieties — developed for food and animal feedstock. These objections follow dozens of others that have been made over the previous five years. (These are the same varieties that are ubiquitous in many other countries, including the United States.) A European Commission spokesperson has suggested that a new approach will be necessary to authorize such “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, in order to align with the new Farm to Fork Strategy, an agricultural strategy recently embraced by Europe:

We look forward to constructive cooperation with the co-legislators on all these measures, which we believe will enable the achievement of a sustainable food system, including GMOs on which the EU feed sector is presently highly dependent.

The latter part of this quote is, in fact, incomplete: There is extensive reliance of the EU on imports of both food and feed, of which a significant portion is genetically engineered. In 2018, for example, the EU imported about 45 million tons a year of GM crops for food and livestock feed. More specifically, the livestock sector in the EU depends heavily on imports of soy. According to Commission figures, in 2019-2020 the EU imported 16.87 million tonnes of soymeal and 14.17 million tonnes of soybeans, most of which came from countries where GM crops are widely cultivated. For example, 90% originates from four countries in which around 90% of cultivated soybeans are GM.

For a GM crop to enter the EU marketplace (whether for cultivation or to be used in food or feed, or for other purposes), an authorization is required. Applications for authorization are first submitted to a Member State, which forwards them to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In cooperation with Member States’ scientific bodies, EFSA assesses possible risks of the variety to human and animal health and the environment. Parliament itself plays no part in the authorization process, but it can oppose or demand rejection of a new GM crop based on any whim, prejudice, or the bleating of NGOs in their constituencies. They have chosen to ignore the sagacious observation of the 18th century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke that, in republics,

Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

GM crops have been shown repeatedly to pose no unique or systematic risks to human health or the environment. The policies articulated in Farm to Fork suggest a renewed interest by the EU in environmental sustainability but conveniently ignore that that is the essence of what GM crops can bring to the table. Numerous analyses, in particular those of economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, have demonstrated that the introduction of GM crops lessens the amount of chemical inputs, improves farm yields and farmer incomes, and reduces the need for tillage, thus reducing carbon emissions.  The indirect benefits from GM crops include empowering women farmers by removing the drudgery of weeding, and lowering the risk of cancer by lessening crop damage from insect pests whose predation can increase aflatoxin levels. Reducing crop damage in turn reduces food waste. GM crops can also improve farmers’ health by lessening the likelihood of pesticide poisoning, and GM biofortified crops can also provide nutritional benefits that are not found in conventional crops, a life-saving innovation for the rural poor in low- to middle-income countries.

The rift between the views of the European Parliament and EU scientific agencies such as the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) shows no signs of healing. Bill Wirtz of the Consumer Choice Center predicts that trying to achieve the goals of the Farm to Fork strategy will have “dire impacts.” To address a legacy of environmental degradation, the EU proposes by 2030 to increase organic farming by 25% and reduce pesticide application on farmland by 50%. These plans fail to consider that pesticide use has sharply decreased over the past 50 years and that organic agriculture does not necessarily imply lower carbon emissions; often, the opposite is true.

Wirtz goes on to describe how slack compliance laws across the EU have made food fraud a viable business model. A significant proportion of this fraudulent organic food stems from international imports from countries, such as China, with a history of inferior quality and violation of food standards. However, he observes, increasing the surveillance and enforcement of food imports standards and rejecting those that are fraudulent could jeopardize current food security efforts, as well as the economy of the EU as a whole, given the EU’s substantial dependency on food imports.

The Farm to Fork initiative gets support from occasional specious articles in the “scientific” literature. An example is a paper published last December in Nature Communications, “Calculation of external climate costs for food highlights /inadequate pricing of animal products” by German researchers Pieper et al. The paper, which illustrates the hazards of meta-analyses on poorly selected articles, describes the use of life-cycle assessment and meta-analytical tools to determine the external climate-warming costs of animal meat, dairy and plant-based food products, made with conventional versus organic practices. The authors calculate that external greenhouse gas costs are highest for animal-based products, followed by conventional dairy products, and lowest for plant-based products, and they recommend that policy changes be made in order to make currently “distorted” food prices better reflect these environmental “costs.” They also claim that organic farming practices have a lower environmental impact than conventional, and for that matter, GM crops. They failed, however, to reference the immense body of work of Matin Qaim, Brookes and Barfoot, and many others, documenting the role that GM crops have played in furthering environmental sustainability by reducing carbon emissions and pesticide use, while increasing yield and farmers’ incomes. The omission of any reference to, or rebuttal of, that exemplary body of work is a flagrant flaw.

The paucity of GM versus organic crop data discussed in the paper is also deceptive. Anyone unfamiliar with the role of GM crops in agriculture would be left with the impression that organic crops are superior in terms of land use, deforestation, pesticide use and other environmental concerns. Yet many difficulties exist, especially, for pest management of organic crops, often resulting in lower yields and reduced product quality.

There is extensive and robust data suggesting that organic farming is not a viable strategy to reduce global GHG emissions. When the effects of land-use change are factored in, organic farming can result in higher global GHG emissions than conventional alternatives — which is even more pronounced if one includes the development and use of new breeding technologies, which are banned in organic farming.

Pieper et al claim — rather grandiosely, it seems to us — that their method of calculating the “true costs of food…could lead to an increase in the welfare of society as a whole by reducing current market imperfections and their resulting negative ecological and social impacts.” But that only works if we omit all the data on imported food and feed, turn a blind eye to the welfare of the poor, and disregard the impact of crop pests for which there is no good organic solution.

It is true that animal-based products have costs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions that are not reflected in the price, that plant-based products have varying external climate costs (as have all non-food products that we consume), and that adopting policies that internalizing those costs as much as possible would be the best practice. Conventional farming often has significantly higher yields, especially for food crops (as opposed to hay and silage), than farming with organic practices. The adoption of agroecological practices mandated by Farm-to-Fork policies would greatly reduce agricultural productivity in the EU, and could have devastating consequences for food-insecure Africa. Europe is the major trading partner for many African countries, and European NGOs and government aid organizations exert profound influence over Africa, often actively discouraging the use of superior modern farming approaches and technologies, claiming that adoption of these tools conflicts with the EU’s “Green Deal” initiative. Thus, there is a negative ripple effect on developing countries of anti-innovation, anti-technology policies by influential industrialized countries.

Moreover, the EU even now imports much of its food, which as described above, has significant implications for its trading partners and Europe’s future food security. The EU seems to have failed to consider that continuing on the Farm to Fork trajectory will require endlessly increasing food imports, increasing food prices and jeopardizing quality. Or maybe they have just chosen to embrace the fad of the moment and kick the can down la rueAprès moi, le déluge.

Originally published here.

European Green Deal: GMOs completely absent

Can Europe still claim to be on the side of science?…

Agriculture is one of the key strategic pillars in the fight against climate change. In a world where average temperatures are set to reach levels that humanity has never experienced, we will have to be even more resourceful to feed an ever-growing population. Unfortunately, the “Farm to Fork” plan unveiled by the European Commission last May seems to be going in the opposite direction. Instead of relying on the latest innovations brought about by genetic engineering, the Commission prefers to bet on the democratisation of organic farming, whose ecological and health virtues are, after analysis, very limited. 

The Commission plans to reduce the European agricultural area by 10% while converting 25% of agricultural land to organic farming, representing only 7.5% of the land. These two objectives are incompatible. Indeed, given that the profitability per hectare of organic farming is on average 25% lower than that of conventional farming, an increase in the proportion of “organic” farming in Europe must necessarily be accompanied by an increase in the area cultivated – and potentially by a reduction in forests. For example, an article published in Nature in December 2018 showed that conversion to organic farming could lead to significant CO2 emissions by promoting deforestation. After studying the case of organic peas grown in Sweden, the authors conclude that they have “an impact on the climate about 50% greater than conventionally grown peas”. 

The plan also calls for the use of chemical pesticides to be halved. Here again, the Commission fails to recognise that pesticides are essential to protect crops from disease and pests. Farmers cannot do without them without risking the decimation of their crops and the collapse of their yields – exposing consumers to shortages and sharp price fluctuations. And since they cannot do without them, if they are forbidden to use chemical pesticides, they will turn to so-called ‘natural’ pesticides, as in organic farming. However, just because a pesticide is natural does not mean that it is necessarily less dangerous for health and the environment. On the contrary, copper sulphate, a ‘natural’ fungicide widely used in organic farming, is known to be toxic.

Conversely, just because a pesticide is synthetic does not mean it is dangerous. Indeed, despite the paranoia surrounding chemical pesticides today, the European Food Safety Agency concluded in a 2016 study that they “are not likely to pose a health risk to consumers”. This is not surprising, as pesticides are tested for health effects before being put on the market. 

It is true, however, that in environmental terms, chemical pesticides can have harmful consequences. But no more so than natural pesticides – copper sulphate, once again, is as toxic to humans as it is to ecosystems. So the challenge is to find a real alternative to pesticides. 

The good news is that one already exists: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Indeed, scientists at the Georg-August University in Goettingen, Germany, have estimated that genetic engineering has already reduced the use of chemical pesticides worldwide by 37% while increasing crop yields by 22% and boosting farmers’ profits by 68%. But the benefits of growing GM crops do not stop there. It also produces drought-resistant crops and end products with improved nutritional properties. In short, genetic engineering promises to address ecological, health and demographic challenges simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the development of this technology is not part of the Commission’s plan. This is due to the precautionary dogma that inspires the current European regulations. Indeed, while much progress has been made in this field, allowing the various techniques to gain in precision, the regulation that applies to all GMOs -without distinction- has not evolved since 2001. 

It is regrettable that a “Green New Deal” whose ambition is to build a “healthier and more sustainable food system” does not include a review of the rules governing the research, development and distribution of GMOs. This is all the more so because, given the current state of knowledge, there is no reason to believe that human-directed genome modification entails more risks than that which occurs naturally through the evolutionary process.
In 2016, a hundred Nobel Prize winners spoke out in favour of GM crops: “GMOs are safe, GMOs are environmentally friendly, GMOs are especially important for small farmers”. What is the logic of politics paying attention to the scientific consensus on global warming but ignoring this call from 155 Nobel Prize winners for the development of GMO agriculture? Can Europe still claim to be on the side of science?

Originally published here

Fake pesticides threaten consumer health

Counterfeiting is a real problem…

European institutions, particularly on the European Parliament’s legislative level, constantly debate and seek to regulate the use of crop protection tools. The catalogue of available products is getting thinner every year, which has been criticised by farmers. However, making chemical compounds or products illegal does not automatically rid the market of their presence. In fact, the ill effects of prohibition apply to the agricultural sector to the same extent as other consumption areas. 

In 2018, the European Union Intellectual Property Office stated that €1.3 billion are lost every year in Europe due to fake pesticides. This translates to €299 million and 500 jobs lost per year in Germany, €240 million and 500 jobs each year lost in France, and €185 million and 270 jobs lost annually in Italy.

In 2018, EUROPOL revealed that some 360 tonnes of illegal or counterfeit pesticides were seized in Europe in a joint effort with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Counterfeit pesticides, now estimated to represent 14% of the European crop protection market, pose serious health risks to consumers. They are not subject to the rigorous safety assessments of food safety authorities. Adding to that, untested products can also lead to considerable harvest loss, resulting in less food security for European consumers.

Recent numbers make the 2018 statistics pale in comparison. In 2020, EUROPOL stated that 1,346 tonnes of counterfeits, illegal, and unregulated products had been taken off the market, or the equivalent of 458 Olympic-sized pools, with a total worth of €94 million of criminal profits seized. In the illegal trade raids, one can also notice an uptick in seizures of illegal pesticides, which relates to non-approved products. Year after year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) records the presence of unapproved pesticides in European food. As a result, there have been calls upon member states to increase their inquiries into the imports of non approved pesticides into the European Union. In an effort to tackle this problem at its roots, we believe that a re-evaluation, conjointly with farmers associations, of the approval of these substances is a sensible solution. Suppose the European Union or member states outlaw a chemical substance due to health concerns, yet the ban results in an uptick in illegal trade with absolutely no safety assessment. In that case, a sensible compromise solution that takes into account the worries of producers while respecting the safety of consumers is in order.

Note on the illicit trade with fertilisers: In 2012, the Danish newspaper “Politiken” published an extensive report on the prevalence of illicit trade with fertilisers, which triggered a question to the European Commission about the extent of this problem. In a written answer, the Commissioner in charge replied in July of 2012 that Berlaymont was not aware of illegal trade in this area, and assured the necessary observation and enforcement mechanism were in motion to avoid it. Given the extent of fraudulent trade with organic food and the prevalent spread of fake pesticides, we believe that an investigation into the existence of illicit fertilisers in Europe is opportune.

Illicit trade is a significant challenge for societies in today’s globalised world. From cosmetics to medicines and agricultural products, illicit trade is putting millions of consumers around the globe at risk. The scope of the problem is transnational, and, therefore, the cost of misguided policies is very high. Our goal should be to create and sustain the conditions under which there would be no incentive to turn to the black market. This can be achieved by reducing tax burdens, enhancing branding and marketing freedom, introducing harsher penalties for fraudulent trading practices, and ensuring transparency across the EU.

Originally published here.

The Commission’s organic ambitions will be paid by consumers

Consumers will foot the bill for extravagant organic goals…

As I’ve previously explained on this website, the EU’s organic ambitions are seriously misled, because contrary to popular belief, organic food is neither environmentally friendly, nor better for consumers. Research has established that moving all current farming to organic farming would increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70%. Researchers analysed the hypothetical move of Welsh and English farm production to organic and found that reduced crop yields in organic farming increased the need to import food from overseas. Including the GHGs emitted growing that food abroad — a part of the equation often ignored advocates of organic agriculture — total GHGs emitted would increase between 21% in the best-case scenario to an astounding 70%, depending on how much natural habitat and forest had to be cleared to make up for the decline caused by England’s and Wales’ switch to organic production.

The recently released Organic Action Plan of the European Commission explains how exactly Berlaymont wants to boost organic production from the current 8 per cent to 25 per cent. On top of that, the Commission seeks to respond to the concerns of farmer’s unions, who remarked that if consumer demand does not match the supply, then they could be affected by serious price instabilities.

Two points in ‘Axis 1’ of the plan strike me:

  • promote organic canteens and increase the use of green public procurement;
  • reinforce organic school scheme

In essence, the Commission is trying to boost organic demand by forcing public institutions to adopt them in their canteens. This point remains vague, better it’s expected that the EU will adopt further subsidies for organic agriculture:

  • promote organic farming and the EU logo

Once again, consumers will be asked to foot the bill for agricultural ambitions of the EU. 

That said, the Organic Action Plan also includes the very necessary fight against fraud in the organic sector.

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.

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, the EU institutions must prioritise the authenticity of these food imports

Overall, the Commission’s Plan is compiled of the problematic implementation of its organic ambitions at taxpayer’s expense, and the necessary fight against fraudulent imports. So we get the good, the bad, and once we get the stage of the directives, I fear we might see the ugly.

Originally published here.

The EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy Is Ill-Conceived and Destructive

There is ongoing disagreement between the popularly elected European Parliament and the executives in the European Commission over approvals of “genetically modified” (GM) crops, which are made with modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. In December, members of the European Parliament objected to authorizations of no fewer than five new GM crops — one soybean and four corn (maize) varieties — developed for food and animal feedstock. These objections follow dozens of others that have been made over the previous five years. (These are the same varieties that are ubiquitous in many other countries, including the United States.) A European Commission spokesperson has suggested that a new approach will be necessary to authorize such “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, in order to align with the new Farm to Fork Strategy, an agricultural strategy recently embraced by Europe:

“We look forward to constructive cooperation with the co-legislators on all these measures, which we believe will enable the achievement of a sustainable food system, including GMOs on which the EU feed sector is presently highly dependent.”

The latter part of this quote is, in fact, incomplete: There is extensive reliance of the EU on imports of both food and feed, of which a significant portion is genetically engineered. In 2018, for example, the EU imported about 45 million tons a year of GM crops for food and livestock feed. More specifically, the livestock sector in the EU depends heavily on imports of soy. According to Commission figures, in 2019-2020 the EU imported 16.87 million tonnes of soymeal and 14.17 million tonnes of soybeans, most of which came from countries where GM crops are widely cultivated. For example, 90% originates from four countries in which around 90% of cultivated soybeans are GM.

For a GM crop to enter the EU marketplace (whether for cultivation or to be used in food or feed, or for other purposes), an authorization is required. Applications for authorization are first submitted to a Member State, which forwards them to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In cooperation with Member States’ scientific bodies, EFSA assesses possible risks of the variety to human and animal health and the environment. Parliament itself plays no part in the authorization process, but it can oppose or demand rejection of a new GM crop based on any whim, prejudice, or the bleating of NGOs in their constituencies. They have chosen to ignore the sagacious observation of the 18th century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke that, in republics, “Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

GM crops have been shown repeatedly to pose no unique or systematic risks to human health or the environment. The policies articulated in Farm to Fork suggest a renewed interest by the EU in environmental sustainability but conveniently ignore that that is the essence of what GM crops can bring to the table. Numerous analyses, in particular those of economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, have demonstrated that the introduction of GM crops lessens the amount of chemical inputs, improves farm yields and farmer incomes, and reduces the need for tillage, thus reducing carbon emissions.  The indirect benefits from GM crops include empowering women farmers by removing the drudgery of weeding, and lowering the risk of cancer by lessening crop damage from insect pests whose predation can increase aflatoxin levels. Reducing crop damage in turn reduces food waste. GM crops can also improve farmers’ health by lessening the likelihood of pesticide poisoning, and GM biofortified crops can also provide nutritional benefits that are not found in conventional crops, a life-saving innovation for the rural poor in low- to middle-income countries.

The rift between the views of the European Parliament and EU scientific agencies such as the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) shows no signs of healing. Bill Wirtz of the Consumer Choice Center predicts that trying to achieve the goals of the Farm to Fork strategy will have “dire impacts.” To address a legacy of environmental degradation, the EU proposes by 2030 to increase organic farming by 25% and reduce pesticide application on farmland by 50%. These plans fail to consider that pesticide use has sharply decreased over the past 50 years and that organic agriculture does not necessarily imply lower carbon emissions; often, the opposite is true.

Wirtz goes on to describe how slack compliance laws across the EU have made food fraud a viable business model. A significant proportion of this fraudulent organic food stems from international imports from countries, such as China, with a history of inferior quality and violation of food standards. However, he observes, increasing the surveillance and enforcement of food imports standards and rejecting those that are fraudulent could jeopardize current food security efforts, as well as the economy of the EU as a whole, given the EU’s substantial dependency on food imports.

The Farm to Fork initiative gets support from occasional specious articles in the “scientific” literature. An example is a paper published last December in Nature Communications, “Calculation of external climate costs for food highlights /inadequate pricing of animal products” by German researchers Pieper et al. The paper, which illustrates the hazards of meta-analyses on poorly selected articles, describes the use of life-cycle assessment and meta-analytical tools to determine the external climate-warming costs of animal meat, dairy and plant-based food products, made with conventional versus organic practices. The authors calculate that external greenhouse gas costs are highest for animal-based products, followed by conventional dairy products, and lowest for plant-based products, and they recommend that policy changes be made in order to make currently “distorted” food prices better reflect these environmental “costs.” They also claim that organic farming practices have a lower environmental impact than conventional, and for that matter, GM crops. They failed, however, to reference the immense body of work of Matin Qaim, Brookes and Barfoot, and many others, documenting the role that GM crops have played in furthering environmental sustainability by reducing carbon emissions and pesticide use, while increasing yield and farmers’ incomes. The omission of any reference to, or rebuttal of, that exemplary body of work is a flagrant flaw.

The paucity of GM versus organic crop data discussed in the paper is also deceptive. Anyone unfamiliar with the role of GM crops in agriculture would be left with the impression that organic crops are superior in terms of land use, deforestation, pesticide use and other environmental concerns. Yet many difficulties exist, especially, for pest management of organic crops, often resulting in lower yields and reduced product quality.

There is extensive and robust data suggesting that organic farming is not a viable strategy to reduce global GHG emissions. When the effects of land-use change are factored in, organic farming can result in higher global GHG emissions than conventional alternatives — which is even more pronounced if one includes the development and use of new breeding technologies, which are banned in organic farming.

Pieper et al claim — rather grandiosely, it seems to us — that their method of calculating the “true costs of food…could lead to an increase in the welfare of society as a whole by reducing current market imperfections and their resulting negative ecological and social impacts.” But that only works if we omit all the data on imported food and feed, turn a blind eye to the welfare of the poor, and disregard the impact of crop pests for which there is no good organic solution.

It is true that animal-based products have costs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions that are not reflected in the price, that plant-based products have varying external climate costs (as have all non-food products that we consume), and that adopting policies that internalizing those costs as much as possible would be the best practice. Conventional farming often has significantly higher yields, especially for food crops (as opposed to hay and silage), than farming with organic practices. The adoption of agroecological practices mandated by Farm-to-Fork policies would greatly reduce agricultural productivity in the EU, and could have devastating consequences for food-insecure Africa. Europe is the major trading partner for many African countries, and European NGOs and government aid organizations exert profound influence over Africa, often actively discouraging the use of superior modern farming approaches and technologies, claiming that adoption of these tools conflicts with the EU’s “Green Deal” initiative. Thus, there is a negative ripple effect on developing countries of anti-innovation, anti-technology policies by influential industrialized countries.

Moreover, the EU even now imports much of its food, which as described above, has significant implications for its trading partners and Europe’s future food security. The EU seems to have failed to consider that continuing on the Farm to Fork trajectory will require endlessly increasing food imports, increasing food prices and jeopardizing quality. Or maybe they have just chosen to embrace the fad of the moment and kick the can down la rueAprès moi, le déluge.

Originally published here.

Video: ‘Science over unjustified cautiousness:’ Why UK should abandon Europe’s biotech crop rules

Many groups, including the Consumer Choice Center, have endorsed genetic technologies, and there is good reason to expect the UK government to finally choose science over unjustified cautiousness inherent to EU regulations.

“Boris Johnson has repeatedly mentioned his willingness to liberate the UK’s “extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules.” Such a policy would be a huge win for consumers and farmers, and at the same time it would also signal a momentous drift away from the European Union’s unjustified cautiousness towards these new technologies,” said Maria Chaplia, Research Manager at the Consumer Choice Center.

We at the Consumer Choice Center call on the UK government to take the path of more consumer choice and more science …. What are the benefits of enabling genetic engineering in the UK?

  • Approving GM pest-resistant crops could save about £60 million ($79 million) a year in pesticide use in the UK
  • More trade opportunities, including a trade deal with the US.
  • Improved agricultural performance with less labour and energy input and less cost input.
  • Reduced usage of pesticides and herbicides.

Originally published here.

AFRICA: a charter on agroecology is born

The International Agroecological Movement For Africa, (I am Africa) aims to revolutionise African agriculture on a sustainable and environmentally friendly basis. This desire, which was started on the fringes of the “One Planet Summit 2021”, is governed by a charter that is open for signature by other companies willing to invest in future-oriented agro-ecological sectors in Africa.

This is the agricultural version of the third edition of the “One Planet Summit”. On the side-lines of this international summit on climate change, held on January11th, 2021 by videoconference, more than 100 African and European operators from across the agricultural value chain launched the International Agroecological Movement For Africa, (Iam Africa). The initiative is governed by a charter in which the signatories commit themselves to investing in agro-ecology in Africa. “The objective of the signatories is to participate in the promotion of a strategy that combines social, environmental and economic development for the prosperitý but also for the preservation of the biodiversitý and more generally of the continent’s stabilitý,” says Karim Ait Talb, co-founder of the initiative and deputy managing director of the Advens/Geocoton group.

The provisions of the charter give a large part of the project implementation to local companies and organisations. And the collaboration between the latter and European structures should encourage technology transfers and the appropriation of the know-how necessary for the sustainable establishment of the agricultural and livestock production sectors envisaged by this charter.

The Sahel region will be a priority

Iam Africa intends to deploy particularly in the Sahel region, considered to be one of the epicentres of global warming in the world. The signatories of the charter are indeed convinced that the establishment of an agro-livestock value chain encouraging the deployment of agro-ecological practices, and the creation of dignified and sustainable jobs, will constitute an important response for the adaptation of the populations of the region and the mitigation of the effects of climate change, particularly with regard to migration flows and security challenges. The intensification in the Sahel of projects carried out in the framework of Iam Africa should also contribute to the realisation of the Great Green Wall initiative by 2030.

However, it would be prudent for Iam Africa members to adapt the vision of their charter to local realities. For some experts warn against the popularisation of agro-ecology in developing countries. Its lack of mechanisation, GMOs and the use of synthetic fertilisers is a blow to agricultural production. A recent study by pro-agroecology activists showed that applying these principles to Europe would reduce agricultural productivity by an average of 35%. For Bill Wirtz, a public policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center, if such a scenario were to occur in Africa, it would be a disaster for a continent where 20 per cent of the population suffers from hunger (2017), according to a UN report.

Originally published here.

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.

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