2022 Delivered a Tectonic Shift in Perceptions of Agricultural Biotech
Conquest, war, famine, and death: Looking back on 2022 as the COVID-19 plague roars into its fourth year, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have all been well exercised. But though there was much to be dismayed about, all was not gloomy, and there were indicators of an important sea change.
In the past year, after decades of unwarranted delay, Golden Rice was planted in the Philippines, harvested and eaten, and approval is now being sought to grow it in India. The cynical opposition campaign has finally been overcome, and the world will be a better place for it. But this is just one part of a larger story.
While crops improved through biotechnology have become the new normal for agriculture in most of the developed world (except Europe—more on that to follow), the African continent has lagged conspicuously. Economic and political pressure from Europe, magnified by disinformation and fear spread by European “green” groups, contributed to decades of delay in developing the necessary political and bureaucratic acceptance. But in 2022 Africans raised their voices to demand access to the same seeds and technologies that have proven so productive and valuable elsewhere, and sluggish governments have begun to move.
Ghana approved its first commodity crop for human consumption, a biotech-improved (“GM”) insect-resistant cowpea, and is pursuing biotechnology to reduce pesticide use and augment aquaculture. Nigeria has now approved a total of 29 biotech improved crops including potatoes, cotton, maize, soybean, and wheat, donning the mantle of a “role model” for African agriculture, pursuing its own self-interest, and rejecting the European approach. Even Zambia, long a rejectionist stronghold, is moving to embrace the technology and expand its use into livestock improvement. And Ethiopian farmers are planting Bt cotton illegally smuggled from Sudan, continuing the tradition of civil disobedience established by farmers in Brazil and India. Pockets of resistance persist, but the African sun is setting on the anti-GM flavor of European green imperialism.
Meanwhile, Latin America is well down the road toward becoming an independent center of innovation in agricultural biotechnology. Chile, long a global powerhouse for counter-seasonal multiplication of biotech-improved seeds, is rapidly embracing gene editing to make crops resilient to climate change. Bolivia sees the benefits of biotechnology and is exploring how to relax unwarranted regulatory burdens. Colombian seed producers and farmers oppose restrictive regulations while early adopter and major producer Argentina has updated and streamlined its regulations. Mexico is rapidly backpedaling on a stated intention to ban biotech-improved corn and glyphosate, amid dire forecasts of the damage that would result. And Brazil, firmly in the rank of world leaders, is rapidly moving toward deploying biotech-improved wheat, gene-edited soy, and more.
In Asia, China, an early adopter and beneficiary of biotech-improved cotton, is cautiously moving to embrace biotech as a tool to improve food self-sufficiency, with President Xi Jinping defining it as one of the “core technologies” that cannot be left to the free market, requiring leadership from the Chinese government. Japan has had a functional regulatory system more reasonable than most for years, and brought gene-edited tomatoes to market this year while expanding the technology into aquaculture. This has happened even as Japanese media have begun to push back against fear-based marketing from the organic industry. With leadership from the top, Indonesia is rapidly moving to exploit biotech-improved soybeans. And India is struggling to overcome bureaucratic chaos and approve GM mustard and numerous additional crops to build on the conspicuous successes of Indian farmers with Bt cotton.
And in the biggest development of all, resistance to biotech-improved crops in Europe is crumbling. Determined not to repeat with gene editing the disastrous, self-inflicted injuries from their misguided regulation of genetic engineering, European scientists have been increasingly vocal in recent years arguing for a different, science-based approach. Here is a stochastic sample of items that have appeared in recent months:
- Agriculture ministers from a majority of EU nations signaled support for looser gene editing regulations.
- In doing so, the agriculture ministers cited the need to mitigate fertilizer shortages, drought, and declining soil fertility that threaten European ag production.
- An EU Commissioner said gene editing will help guarantee food security.
- EU ministers in Prague called for biotechnologies to be used as a tool to tackle climate change.
- France’s agriculture minister discussed gene editing as a climate solution and explained how embracing gene-edited crops can help bolster food security and sustainability.
- A noted Austrian author advocated for adopting of gene-edited crops, as did a prominent Austrian biologist.
- German farmers and scientists also sought access to gene editing.
- An EU public consultation found support for new genomic techniques.
- The news site FDP urged Germany to embrace gene-edited crops.
- A Dutch website amplified scientists’ calls for access to gene editing, characterizing EU biotech regulations as outdated barriers to agricultural innovation, while another Dutch biologist affirmed GMOs can “future-proof” farming.
- Drought was a factor for EU politicians opposing laws restricting GMO cultivation.
- Fears of food shortage also fueled a push for gene editing.
- Germany’s Federal Office of Consumer Protection & Food Safety received ~270,000 euros to conduct risk research and a socio-economic impact assessment of gene-edited crops as part of the EU project “Gene Editing for a Sustainable Bioeconomy.”
- A German NGO noted enviously that the new British prime minister supports gene editing.
- A gene-editing bill was introduced in the United Kingdom to assure food security while reducing the environmental effects of agriculture, since there are no verified safety concerns around current GM crops, and delights such as purple tomatoes herald a new era for GM food.
- A French plant association cataloged research on the climate benefits of biotechnology. Meanwhile, a survey found consumers with a high level of knowledge regarding CRISPR and gene editing have no issue with consuming wine or grapes developed using the technique.
- An Italian no-tiller made the case for GMO corn as a way to mitigate the harmful impacts of Europe’s worst drought in 500 years, and an Italian MEP echoed the sentiment, noting that the EU seeks to impose completely unrealistic pesticide reduction targets with devastating impacts on EU production capacity,” yet it expects increased cereals production.
- Meanwhile, the Italian organic group FederBio signaled it is open to more seriously examining whether gene-edited crops are compatible with organic techniques.
- And back in the United Kingdom, newly crowned King Charles’s unorthodox, radical farming views stood in contrast with Parliament’s priorities on issues like gene editing.
There are several notable aspects to this list of developments: The first is its depth. It is neither exhaustive nor cherry-picked; there have been many more similar stories over the past year. Media coverage of agricultural biotechnology in Europe has been markedly different in 2022 than in any other year in at least the past three decades.
The second item of significance is the number of stories from France, Italy, and Austria—all historical hotbeds of opposition to GMOs, and all clearly changing their tunes. This is real. These are signals, not noise.
If doubt remains, consider these items:
- Norway is considering granting approval for gene-edited rapeseed oil.
- And Finland’s Green Party now supports genetic engineering in agriculture.
When you’ve lost the Scandinavian greens, you’re done.
So, does this mean opposition to gene editing is over and everything’s fine? That the way forward is clear for rapidly developing and deploying genetic engineering and gene editing to solve major challenges in agriculture, industry, and climate mitigation? Unfortunately, no.
The shift in media coverage reflects the failure of the constant claims by enemies of innovation over the past four decades that disaster is imminent if “GMOs” are not consigned to outer darkness. If you cry wolf every day for decades and the wolves turn out to be lapdogs, the public, and even the media, notices. But this sea change in public attitudes and media coverage itself accomplishes little to help innovators overcome the single greatest obstacle they face—excessive regulation driven by fantastical fears unsupported by data and contradicted by experience.
Regulatory regimes around the world, without exception, subject crops and foods developed through biotechnology to considerably more regulatory scrutiny, and thus delay, than applied to those produced under conditions with significantly greater hazards. This does not improve human or environmental health. The single largest consequence of these regulations is to prolong reliance on outmoded, less safe, and less environmentally sustainable new crops, foods, and solutions to many of the myriad challenges confronting society with respect to climate change.
Five years ago, a collection of headlines like those above would have been impossible to amass; such stories were possible to find, though they were rare. Now each day brings a new crop of similar stories. The weight of evidence, experience, and urgency of need are accelerating a long-term trend: Even those once hesitant increasingly understand that gene editing, GMOs, and other cutting-edge biotechnologies are essential tools to usher in a safe and prosperous future for humanity.
We may not succeed in securing a safer, greener, richer, and healthier future with modern biotechnologies. But the odds are far more favorable than if we try to do so without them. And with them, the forecast for 2023 and beyond is promising.