Crops Matter: Young Citizens take the Initiative

See the French translation

A group of agriculture technology students, in reaction to last year’s decision by the European Court of Justice to relegate modern seed breeding technologies to the EU’s unregulatable 2001 GMO Directive, have launched a European Citizens’ Initiative to resolve this regrettable situation. Here’s why farmers and scientists owe them their respect and support.

The Risk-Monger has been suffocating in the hypocrisy of the Brussels Bubble for far too long. After decades of watching clear scientific solutions to manageable risks evaporate in the emotion of activist fear campaigns with little evidence and no viable alternatives proposed (some people have given this madness a name: “The Precautionary Principle”), I have grown quite cynical.

The NPBT relegation was pure playbook perfection

On agriculture issues, I have come to expect the Activist Playbook to be applied indiscriminately without thinking that farmers should not have to be forced to fail; applied without understanding that most agricultural technology bans have resulted in worse consequences for the environment; and without respect for vulnerable groups at risk, globally, of food insecurity. I still care deeply about finding the best solutions for food and agriculture production, but after years of being stuck in rooms full of ideologues and zealots, you come to expect the worst in people.

So last year when the European Court of Justice decided to castrate the most exciting innovations in seed breeding technologies thanks to the self-interest of the extremist end of the organic food lobby, I loathed the activists and their wretched practices, I cursed the European Commission for lacking the courage to properly regulate the new plant breeding techniques and then I prayed someone would do something to stop this mad injustice to farmers and researchers.

At the same time, a little more than an hour away from Brussels in an agriculture faculty at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, a group of Master’s students were looking at the European Union’s restrictions on research and agriculture through more optimistic eyes. These students clearly saw how this madness made no sense and were ready to address the problem with a clear, rational solution. Students are taught to identify and solve problems. So they started a European Citizens’ Initiative to get the European Commission to reassess how the new seed breeding technologies should be considered (something the European civil servants should have done a decade ago). My prayers were answered.

Open, engaging, honest, … inspiring: www.growscientificprogress.org/meet-us

GrowScientificProgress.org

I had the good fortune of interviewing three of the students behind the GrowScientificProgress Citizens’ Initiative and their vision and solutions for European agriculture were far more mature than any of the noise coming out of Brussels. Shortly into my Skype call with Martina Helmlinger, a student from Austria, Lilli Schütz from Germany and Lavinia Scudiero from Italy, it became obvious it was the Risk-Monger who was about to be schooled.

My first question was harsh: Why should we take a Citizens’ Initiative from a group of young students seriously (think “poor Greta”)? Lavinia responded immediately: “As students, we are not connected to any entities or interests.” Lilli then added: “We are safe. We can’t be accused of having an interest. But we need to be careful to keep our independence. We cannot be funded by any groups, companies or organisations.” “GMOs are a delicate subject”, Martina followed, “we know that there is an anti-GMO lobby out there trying to accuse us of serving industry interests. But we are citizens, concerned about the future of agricultural innovation in the EU, wishing to inform and inspire our fellow citizens.”

It did not take long to discover how these students knew exactly what they were doing. You cannot change the European Court of Justice’s decision, you cannot change the 2001 GMO Directive, you cannot undo the decades of fear campaigns ingrained in the European public’s perception of ag-tech (all things consultants are promising to do) but you could offer clarity on that outdated legislation simply by adding an annex to the EU GMO Directive that specifies how the different seed breeding technologies should be addressed. This is what the European Commission should have done if it weren’t so afraid of half a dozen chemophobic activists with a megaphone outside their windows.

What these students demonstrated to me is how the future for European agricultural science and policy is looking more promising with the next generation of ag researchers. While I’ll be getting into the details of the students’ proposed annex in my column due to be published in the autumn in European Seed, this blog will cover the back story: What motivates these young scientists to stand up for research, to stand up for clear policy and to stand up for farmers?

It is not just about seed breeding

A twitter follower gave me a tough question to relay to the group: “Outside of a small number of seed breeders, is anyone else very interested in this?”. They admitted that most consumers don’t want to know how the new breeding technologies work … but then that was never their vision. Lilli raised the point that these techniques may lead to far fewer pesticides used on our food – this is in everybody’s interest. She then added that many innovations will increase yields (particularly in food-scarce regions of the world) and improve soil while mitigating climate change and restoring biodiversity. These technologies will help protect nature. Also, some gene editing has shown how food spoilage can be delayed, extending the shelf life of certain fruits and vegetables.

Lavinia – A veterinarian studying food safety law

Reducing food waste, mitigating climate change, cutting pesticides, improving global food security and protecting soil and biodiversity – everyone should be interested in their Citizens’ Initiative. Lavinia put this question in perfect context. “Many of our friends, sceptical about anything related to GMOs, would ask: ‘Why would you do this?’. When we start to explain the benefits of the technologies, they understand, change their minds and become convinced.”

The students are very aware that seed breeding is associated with large chemical companies. Their Citizens’ Initiative will help smaller companies and labs who cannot afford the regulatory process, especially encouraging research in less common seed challenges (notably for developing countries). There are hundreds of simple solutions to complex problems that these technologies have the potential to address. Lilli added how these innovations are going to be developed elsewhere and then imported into the EU “so why not let our researchers solve our agricultural issues”?

It is about respecting nature

I had to ask them what they thought of the organic food lobby’s rejection of the new breeding techniques. Martina was direct: “It is such a waste to not use the technology. Organic farming does not have the potential to sustain the entire population in its present form, but it could.” Indeed she is spot on. Certain seed breeding techniques like the cisgenic potato or scab-resistant apples would allow farmers to get higher yields with little or no pesticides. Turning off a gene in a seed does not change the plant product, it just allows it to protect itself from certain conditions that would normally require pesticide applications. Organic farmers had an opportunity to become more competitive and more sustainable had they not had their industry lobby let them down and side with the radical left of their movement.

Lilli – Food Sciences

Lilli then asked me a direct question: “What are natural or traditional seeds?” When we look at heirloom seeds for watermelon or maize, it is clear that no one today would want to eat those products.

The students were quick to remind me that seed breeding is a natural process (think evolution or natural selection). Mutagenesis is a natural process (cells indeed are always mutating). What science does is accelerate the process and target the breeding to achieve the desired goals. It is ridiculous to reject seed breeding techniques on the basis that it is unnatural.

It is about feeding the future

These students are very aware of the challenges their future will bring. They will be at the peak of their research careers when global population tops 10 billion. The research decisions we make today will determine how we feed the future and these three young women clearly expressed to me that Europe is not presently prepared to meet that challenge. So who will take responsibility?

Martina – Food Law

I asked them how they feel their future opportunities as European agriculture technology researchers looks. After the European Court of Justice decision to throw new plant breeding techniques under the bus of endless, costly regulatory processes, many predicted another exodus of European biotech researchers. Lavinia, who was the initial driver of the project, agreed and said that is exactly why they took the initiative. Lilli cannot understand how Europe can have a say in future research developments if they say “No! to the technology”. “We would have no way or right to engage in the decision process. It is ridiculous that the scientific brains will leave Europe but the value-added seeds will still return.” Martina was more optimistic: “If this regulatory failure can be properly corrected, Europe can set an example to the world on how to responsibly do seed breeding research and technological development.”

It is about inspiring us

After speaking with these three incredible young scientists, I was not sure what cap I was wearing. Was I the Risk-Monger researching an article? Was I Professor Zaruk seeking to guide them on EU policy pitfalls? Was I a pro-science actor trying to help them?

In the end I was merely an EU citizen ready to sign the petition (Spoiler Alert: I did). These students inspired me to believe there was a future for European agricultural sciences and more sustainable farming. I fear I had given up hope for EU agriculture almost a decade ago when the precautionary hazard-based approach to farm policy was applied. What these three young people did was reassure me that European science still has the possibility to make a difference.

But it is not just about science. It is more about farming and how an improved crop production process indeed does matter. It is about a more sustainable agriculture, using fewer pesticides, higher yields while protecting biodiversity and soil. It is about reducing food waste, CO2 emissions and labour costs. This is not a science or research initiative; it is a plea for the tools for better farming.

This directly concerns farmers.

Sign now!

But with little support, these inspiring young students cannot do it on their own. The European research community won’t make anywhere near the required numbers (one million distributed across all EU Member States … including the UK). It is up to the twelve million European farmers who depend on better, more sustainable technology to put this opportunity back on the table.  

I strongly recommend that all European farmers, encouraged by their farming associations, go to the GrowScientificProgress Citizens’ Initiative and sign their petition to protect EU agriculture … because crops matter.

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