We can buy it but we can’t grow it.
That’s how crazy the European Union’s policies on biotech food have become. Regulators let us purchase livestock feed derived from genetically modified crops, but only if it’s produced abroad. We’re forbidden to grow these exact same plants on our own farms.
It makes no sense, and Europe’s illogical hostility to advanced agricultural technology costs us dearly.
In January, BASF–the world’s largest chemical company, headquartered in Germany–said that it would shift its plant-science operations to Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s great news for the people of the United States, who will now gain all of the job-creating benefits that come with economic growth.
Here in Europe, however, the move is a tragedy.
“The BASF decision is not good for Europe,” said Carel du Marchie Sarvaas of EuropaBio. “It is the reaction of a quintessentially European company to what is a stifling political and regulatory environment. … Research, jobs, and money will go where it is welcomed.”
BASF is hardly alone. Just a week after the German company made its big announcement, Monsanto said that it would pull away from the European market and quit trying to sell insect-resistant corn in France.
Until Europe decides to stop turning its back on the future of food production, innovators and entrepreneurs will continue to flee.
The case for biotech crops is clear: They produce better yields, require less water and fewer chemicals, and deliver environmental benefits. I know this from personal experience because I’ve been planting and harvesting Bt corn in Portugal since 2006. It’s the one kind of biotech crop I can raise here–and I wish I had the freedom to try other varieties, like farmers in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and so many other countries.
Since 1996, farmers around the world have harvested more than 3 billion acres of biotech crops. Last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), almost 17 million of them participated. The vast majority are smallholders in developing countries.
European farmers accounted for only a tiny fraction of the total–so few as to be irrelevant. Nations such as Burkina Faso, Myanmar, and Uruguay are friendlier to biotechnology than the most advanced countries of Europe.
I wish the European Union would put its full faith in the “Declaration for Farmer Choice,” a set of principles that recognize the importance of access to sustainable technologies that will help farmers feed the world.
There are occasional signs of common sense. In Brussels last fall, at a meeting convened by the European Commission, I saw new resistance to anti-biotech organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Their representatives arrived with their worn-out, polarizing statements–and policymakers met them with skepticism. Their unsubstantiated claims may not be taken at face value much longer, especially if farmers, scientists, and businesses keep on speaking out about the importance of agricultural biotechnology.
In Britain, a well-known environmental activist, Mark Lynas, recently changed his mind about GM crops. “There hasn’t been a single GMO-related health issue I’m aware of after over a decade of research and testing,” he said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “And environmentally GMOs have been beneficial, even in their current limited sense. … In the future we will be looking at nitrogen-efficient, drought-tolerant GMO crops with many other traits, which will minimize land use whilst increasing yield.”
These technologies are indeed on the way. Farmers like me want them. In 2011, we planted 60% more Bt corn acres in Portugal than we had the year before. Scientists are developing them. And the world needs them, if we’re going to accomplish what every demographic expert says must be our goal and double food production by 2050, in order to feed all of the planet’s people.
Yet if Europeans are to benefit, the EU regulators will have to stop playing politics, ignoring science, and chasing away companies such as BASF. They’ll have to rethink their prejudices, just like Lynas.
They may want to start by letting me grow the crops that go into the feed that I can buy from foreigners.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm that has been in their family for over 100 years. Growing maize, wheat, barley and green peas, they use no-till or reduced till methods on the full farm. She has grown biotech maize since 2006. Ms. Cruz is President of the Portuguese Association of Conservation Agriculture, a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and the 2010 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient. www.truthabouttrade.org