For more than two decades, much of Europe resisted genetic modification of crops. This has had negative economic consequences for the United States, which has a global lead in this technology. The rejection of so-called Frankenfoods in the European Union has deprived US agribusiness and biotech companies of billions of dollars in potential export revenue and strained transatlantic trade relations.
But that could be about to change, due to COVID-19.
Millions of Europeans have been happy to receive a vaccine against the coronavirus, which is based on genetic engineering, raising the question: what is the difference between a GM vaccine and a GM crop? Will COVID-19 finally convince in Europe the commercial development of a technology that promises higher agricultural productivity, lower food prices, a cleaner environment and greater export revenues for states? United?
European plant scientists and geneticists, who are licensed to conduct research in this area, say the successful deployment of the vaccine in the fight against the pandemic underscores the value of their work.
“It is a wonderful illustration of the usefulness of science in meeting the challenges of the human condition,” said Professor Jonathan Jones of Sainsbury’s laboratory in Norwich, England.
Jones, whose team genetically modified potatoes to make them resistant to blight, believes the efficacy and safety of genetically engineered coronavirus vaccines justifies much maligned technology.
“Without being able to use these methods, the world would never have developed a vaccine against a previously unknown virus in 11 months,” he said.
European opposition to the genetic manipulation of food erupted over 20 years ago and has been particularly intense in Britain. Angry protesters chanted, “Say no to GMOs! [genetically modified organisms]And environmental activists vandalized fields where GM crops were being tested.
The protests rang with the mood of the public and proved to be effective. The regulations have been toughened. Today, strict controls on the technology ensure that commercial cultivation of GM crops is effectively banned in most countries in Europe and, with a few exceptions, the import of GM crops into the EU has also been restricted.
But the change could be underway. And the example of British businessman Alex Smith could indicate the scale and direction of this change.
Smith, who runs the Alara Wholefoods manufacturing company in north London, was once a leading anti-GMO campaigner.
“I did everything I could to oppose it,” Smith said. “I have encouraged other leaders in the organic food industry to create an organization called Genetic Food Alert. We have worked hard to get all GMOs out of the health food industry and over time most UK food retailers have followed our lead. “
But now Smith has changed his mind and is no longer outright dismissing all technology. It supports new gene editing techniques that remove genetic material from an organism without adding genes from a different species. Concern for climate change is the main factor in its conversion.
“If gene editing can alleviate some of the effects of climate chaos, it would be wrong for the organic food industry to dismiss it,” he said.
Plant scientists say there are many ways that genetic manipulation of crops could help reduce global warming, for example, by producing plants that either trap more carbon dioxide in the soil or suck more nitrous oxide, another major greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.
Smith believes the UK is now much more receptive to such genetic interventions thanks to coronavirus vaccines.
“This understanding that genetic technologies saved the day, basically, permeates society. It changed the national mood, ”he said.
Regulatory change in Britain is now a separate possibility, and not just because the national mood has changed. Having left the EU, the UK is free to make its own rules, and the government is preparing to do so. Plant scientist Jonathan Jones – although a staunch opponent of Brexit – is delighted.
“Gritting my teeth, I accept that this is a Brexit dividend. This means that we can develop a more science-based regulatory framework. ” he said.
Meanwhile, the EU could, in theory, do the same. EU agriculture ministers commissioned a study it could also lead him to allow the commercial exploitation of new gene editing techniques in crop improvement, an encouraging prospect for geneticists like Dirk Inzé of the University of Ghent in Belgium.
“Everyone is hoping that the European Commission will reassess the big picture so that this new technology can also be used in Europe,” said Inzé.
All of this could have big implications for the US agribusiness since some of its products have been excluded from Europe by GM restrictions. Emanuel Adam, director of policy and commerce for the BritishAmerican Business group, said a change of mind in Europe could be of great benefit to the United States.
“If there was a big change in European attitudes, it could indeed turn into a huge business opportunity for American food producers,” he said.
The GM issue has troubled transatlantic trade negotiations for years, and while there are many other obstacles to a trade deal, Adam said removing it would help.
“It would definitely make the conversation – the business conversation between the two parties – easier,” he said.
COVID-19 vaccines play a major role in saving lives and facilitating the reopening of the global economy. But they can also encourage Europeans to rethink technology that could revolutionize global food production.
Correction (May 12, 2021): Previous versions of this web and audio story misidentified Jonathan Jones. The error has been corrected.