Europe has just taken a halting step forward in its effort to modernize its increasingly outdated farming practices. While every major industrialized country in the world has been liberalizing its policies restricting new crop biotechnology, most notably CRISPR and other forms of gene editing, the 27 member states of the European Union have remained a scientific backwater in agricultural innovation for decades.
Genetically modified crops, known as GMOs, can only be cultivated or sold for consumption in the EU once they have been authorized at the EU level. Although Europe imports transgenic GMO seeds, mostly for use as animal feed, letting farmers actually grow the crops has been blocked by public and legislative opposition from the powerful anti-biotechnology environmental lobby.
That may finally be changing. On February 6, the European Parliament voted by a decisive margin (301 to 263) to send to the European Commission a measure that, if adopted, would make it far easier for farmers to grow and for consumers to eat the new generation of genetically engineered food. The CRISPR revolution in agriculture might at last be reaching Europe. The only thing that could stop it is the determined opposition by Europe’s increasingly retrograde green movement.
Anti-Crop Biotechnology Activists
To frighten the public, crop biotechnology opponents have stigmatized GM crops as Frankenfoods, the product of out-of-control scientific experiments conducted by nefarious and greedy agri-businesses determined to fatten corporate treasuries, the public and the environment be damned. One of the most popular symbols used to scare people into opposing GM crops was the image of a syringe injecting a tomato; the implication was that unknown chemicals are being injected into our food supply.
The science rejectionists found eager allies among liberal activists, green politicians, and the literati in Hollywood and beyond. King Charles has long been a vocal opponent. Celebrities like Dr. Oz, Gwyneth Paltrow, Neil Young, Mark Ruffalo, Joe Mercola, and Woody Harrelson, who know precious little about science let alone biotechnology, climbed on the anti-GM bandwagon, impugning the integrity of the science community, which was and is overwhelmingly pro-GM. As far back as 2015, at the height of the hysteria campaigns, 88 percent of US scientists endorsed the safety of the technology. That percentage is higher than the consensus view that climate change is primarily driven by human activity, and the figure is likely near 100 percent today.
Then and even now, a handful of scientists act as willing fronts for GMO-rejecting advocacy groups. Influential NGOs—including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—have launched campaigns against agrobiotechnology and crop chemicals. This has proved to be a lucrative fundraising strategy.
But after years of reaping the tainted rewards of disinformation, the ground is shifting against crop-biotechnology rejectionists. Recent advances in agriculture are stunning. CRISPR and other new breeding techniques (or NBTs, also sometimes referred to as new genomic techniques or NGTs) are being used to develop crops that are disease-, drought-, stress-, salt-, insect-, and browning-resistant, more nutritious and colorful and tastier. These crops also have longer shelf-lives. Among the products of NBTs recently approved for cultivation and sale around the world are:
The promise of NBTs has become so self-evident that nations long on the genetic-modification sidelines are rushing to deregulate the technology to boost farm productivity. One of the most prominent of these nations is China. After becoming one of the first countries to embrace crop genetic modification, in 1993, production stalled for decades as the government equivocated in the face of public opposition (although it did import GM soybeans from the US and South America).
Now China is determined to be a global CRISPR innovator. In 2022, China announced it was deregulating crop gene editing. Last year, the government preliminarily approved 37 genetically modified corn seeds and 14 GM soybean seed varieties. In January, China authorized the domestic production of six additional varieties of GM corn, two varieties of soybeans, one variety of cotton, and another two varieties of gene-edited soybeans.
With China opening the door wide to the cultivation of GMOs and the deregulation of gene editing, the top eight most populous countries—China, India, the US, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, and Bangladesh—now either grow GMO crops or have approved the deregulation of gene-edited crops. That’s more than 50 percent of the world’s population.
Food-exporting countries are jumping on the NBT bandwagon. Latin America, led by Brazil and Argentina, has long been a crop-biotechnology innovator. Cuba has been developing GMO crops for years, and has now begun experimentation with gene editing. Only a few countries—Peru, Belize, Ecuador, and Venezuela—seem determined to remain crop-technology backwaters.
Africa is also gradually opening its doors to crop technology innovation, with GMO laws in place in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Ghana, Zambia, and South Africa. Each of these countries is debating new regulations to allow gene-edited crops for import and domestic cultivation. India, Japan, Israel, and Australia grow GM crops either commercially or in test plots; each has deregulated gene-editing for crop production. New Zealand’s new government has indicated that it is open to considering deregulating gene editing.
But perhaps the most consequential change is unfolding across Europe. In March 2023, the UK Parliament deregulated gene editing (although the legislation only applies to England). Last July, the European Commission issued a report outlining a plan to relax the rules and regulations on gene-edited crops. How that debate plays out in coming years will determine whether or not the EU will emerge as a technology leader or a backwater in agricultural production.
How Activists Lost the Battle
As recently as five years ago, the disinformation campaigns of anti-biotech activists had the upper hand. Now, as the European vote illustrates, they are in retreat. There are seven reasons why their movement failed.
1. Activists Cried “Wolf”
Since the introduction of GM crops in the mid-1990s, opponents have warned that new breeding techniques would have catastrophic consequences for human and animal health and the environment. We were assured that GMOs would cause cancer and infertility, and that they would corrupt the DNA of those consuming them. We were warned that GMOs would irreparably alter the environment. We were told that farmers were being brainwashed by global agribusinesses to adopt farming strategies that were against their own and the public’s interests. None of these apocalyptic predictions came to pass.
You might think that, 30 years after the introduction of GM crops produced no credible incident of harm, anti-GM crusaders would move on to another cause. Instead, they continue to peddle their nonsense even as their credibility continues to sink.
2. Green Activists Are Techno-Hypocrites
Crop-biotechnology critics oppose the use of genetic engineering for the cultivation of crops, but for the most part, they endorse their use in medicines and vaccines, even though the processes are similar. GMO insulin was developed decades ago and has been used safely with no public controversy. Highly effective and safe COVID mRNA vaccines are a product of genetic engineering, as are other vaccines such as those for Ebola and HPV. Scientists are now using gene editing to develop malaria and shingles vaccines. Authorities in Europe and the US recently approved a gene-edited treatment for sickle cell anemia. More cancer treatments using gene editing are in development.
News coverage of the use of gene editing to develop medicines, although not as advanced as its applications in agriculture, does appear to be softening public opposition to genetic innovation. It simply makes no sense to welcome gene editing in healthcare but oppose it in agriculture.
3. Paranoia About Multinational Agri-Business
There is scant evidence to support the claim that gene-editing deregulation will allow multinational agri-businesses to “control” global food and seed supply, and much evidence to suggest that the gene-editing revolution is democratizing seed development. Because of the dense and politicized GMO approval process, it takes an average of eight to 13 years and more than $130 million to get a GMO-crop trait approved. But gene editing has unleashed innovation. It now costs just a few million dollars and two years or less to develop a crop with a beneficial new trait. One faculty researcher at Penn State developed an anti-browning mushroom for less than $50,000.
A plethora of new gene-editing-focused companies in the US are now funded by venture capitalists: Pairwise, Cibus (which merged with Calyxt), Green Venus, Elo Life Systems, and Yield 10 Biosciences to name a few. Some of them, such as Pairwise and Calyxt, have already brought products to market.
4. Biotechnology Obstructionism Is Indulgent and Dangerous
We cannot continue to grow food the way we do now. With food demand predicted to soar 50 percent by mid-century, according to UN predictions, and with no more large tracts of arable land yet unexploited, we need to produce more crops on less land. Growing less food and/or clear-cutting forests to increase output is a strategy for planetary suicide. Sustainable intensification using genetically tweaked crops is now widely recognized as the only tenable path forward to meet the challenges of climate-change-induced droughts, persistent plant diseases, increased insect infestations, worsening soil conditions, and shortened growing seasons.
5. Only Crop Biotechnology Can Efficiently Reduce Waste and Spoilage
A significant part of the food-shortage crisis results from food waste. Genetically modified crops that are designed to resist browning and bruising and spoil far less quickly could significantly reduce crop waste.
6. More Food with Fewer Chemicals
Insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops have resulted in a net global decrease in the volume of crop chemical applications. A meta-analysis has found that, on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical-pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and boosted farmer profits by 68 percent. Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ), which measures the toxic impact of chemicals rather than just volume, has shown a 17.3 percent decrease between 1996 and 2020, almost all of which is the result of GM-crop adoption. And even as crop chemical usage per acre is decreasing in countries that grow genetically engineered crops, food production is soaring.
Gene editing promises even more reductions in chemical usage, including the development of plants that can generate their own nitrogen, thus reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
7. Anti-Crop Biotechnology Activists Are Scientifically Regressive
Science innovation is passing crop genetic-engineering rejectionists by. Gene-editing pioneers in medicine and agriculture, meanwhile, are working harder to educate the public about the benefits of this emerging technology. Jennifer Doudna, the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2020 for discovering CRISPR gene-editing, has become a vocal supporter of its use in agriculture. And in January 2024, 35 Nobel laureates and more than 1,000 European scientists signed an open letter to the European Parliament urging it to deregulate gene-editing for crops, writing that it has the potential to dramatically reduce pesticide and fertilizer use, increase food supply, and enhance food security. Most recently, the EU Commission voted to establish a revised system to fast-track approvals of products of new breeding techniques.
Innovation vs. Obstructionism
Although opponents of genetic engineering are in retreat, they remain an intractable and dangerous foe—disinformation machines determined to derail the reforming legislation in Europe. Their current strategy is to tar and feather CRISPR gene editing and other NBTs with the stigma long associated with “Frankenfoods,” a term employed for decades to frighten the public.
For years, biotechnology skeptics based their opposition to GMO crops on the notion that transgenesis, the process used to create new crop varieties, posed unique and unknown health and environmental dangers. A transgenic, or genetically modified, seed has been altered through recombinant DNA technology, which involves either combining DNA from different genomes or inserting what is technically called “foreign DNA” into a genome.
The use of the term “foreign” by scientists is not a judgment; it merely means that the DNA is from another living organism. Because all life on earth shares DNA, there is technically no such thing as “foreign DNA” in the sense that GMO opponents use the term. Yet, anti-GMO activists have weaponized the term “Frankenfood,” claiming (for example) that a new and bizarrely dangerous variety of tomato is being created using fish genes.
This is simply a farcical and non-scientific misunderstanding of the process of genetic modification. Nonetheless, it has worked its damaging public-relations magic, helping to turn an uncertain public against GM crops. As recently as 2020, a Pew Research survey indicated that only 27 percent of Americans believed GMO foods were safe while 38 percent said they were unsafe; 33 percent were not sure. The reason most people cited for being wary of genetic modification was opponents’ false claim that the foods are not natural because the seeds were created using genes from a different species.
But none of the crops we eat today are “natural”; all our plant-derived food has been modified over the centuries by human intervention. The corn we eat today consisted of hard black nubs many centuries ago. Seedless watermelons were created by hybrid breeding. An entire genus of edible plants known as Brassica were once inedible weeds; human manipulation has turned these plants into some of our most beloved vegetables, including red and green cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Romanesco, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, Savoy cabbage, and kohlrabi.
Genetic modification of crops in laboratories is just a more precise form of plant breeding than what humans have been using for millennia. Gene editing is simply the latest tool used by humans. It also does not involve the use of “foreign genes” at all, as changes to the plant genome are made within the species itself, a process known as cisgenesis.
From the perspective of a scientist, neither GMO transgenesis nor gene editing cisgenesis is inherently safer or more dangerous; they are just different techniques. It’s absurd that many countries are relaxing regulations on new breeding techniques while continuing to shackle the approval process for GM products.
In an ideal, scientifically literate world, with overwhelming evidence that both transgenic GMOs and gene-edited crops pose no identifiable unique health or environmental threats, the two complementary breeding techniques would face minimal regulatory hurdles. But we don’t live in that world. Sadly, many GMO crops remain in regulatory purgatory as a residue of the Frankenstein branding by anti-biotech activists.
In contrast, crops grown from new breeding techniques are quickly being embraced, and regulatory hurdles are falling globally. So, we have the bizarre situation in which many countries—including Nigeria, Israel, England, and Japan—are deregulating gene-editing for crop cultivation but still place stringent regulations on transgenic crops, which pose no greater health or environmental hazards. Even while the European Union edges towards deregulating gene editing, any thoughts of fast-tracking GM approvals remain off the table.
How close is the EU to deregulating crop biotechnology? The recent vote is encouraging but the road is still bumpy. Some of the provisions in the measure approved by the parliament leave scientists aghast. Most gene-edited plans will require labeling, which anti-GM activists have exploited in the past to scare consumers. European parliamentarians also voted to block organic farmers from using gene-edited seeds, even though a growing number of farmers see it as the future.
Green activists may be fading in influence, but they still have enough clout to force the inclusion of retrograde clauses. The new measure requires the tracing of gene edits, which is impossible with current technologies. And patents on NBTs are forbidden, which will diminish incentives to innovate. That’s an unprecedented restriction, as patents have been the backbone of agricultural innovation for almost a century.
And then there is the European Commission. Even watered-down deregulation will have trouble passing because a two-thirds majority is necessary. So, what looks like a victory for science—and scientists globally are celebrating the parliament’s vote—has a long slog ahead. Europe is likely to remain an innovation laggard for decades, a hollow victory for environmental activists.
No matter how the public and policy debate plays out over crop biotechnology, innovation is roaring forward. In not too many years, the bulk of the food we consume will be genetically tweaked using one form of technology or another. Advanced countries will deregulate crop genetic engineering because it will increase farm productivity, and because it is one of the only available tools to battle the crop-killing impacts of climate change. As a result, we will have better, tastier crops with longer shelf lives.
We will eventually look back on this period of hyped worries and predictions of impending environmental catastrophes caused by genetically modified crops and be mystified by what all the fuss was about.