Transgenic crops in Europe: quo vadis?

It was great to see the recent announcement that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will fund the John Innes Centre in Norwich (www.jic.ac.uk) to lead a $9.8m research project to investigate whether it is possible to initiate a symbiosis between cereal crops and bacteria. The new research will investigate the possibility of engineering cereals to associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and of delivering this technology through the seed. The focus of the investigation will be maize, the most important staple crop for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. This has the long-term potential to transform the lives of small farmers who depend on agriculture for their food and livelihoods.
This follows the commitment earlier this year by the UK government of significant funding for crop innovation research at the John Innes Centre (£42 million), Rothamsted Research (£41 million) and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (£13 million).
 
These announcements are a shot in the arm for agricultural R&D in Europe, which has suffered from a combination of overly restrictive legislation on genetically modified (GM) organisms and a deep political and market mistrust that has had a profound effect on the innovative environment for European agricultural research. One of the major impacts was the announcement earlier this year by BASF Plant Science that it is relocating from its European headquarters to the US prompted by the European public’s hostility to transgenic crops. It also cancelled all R&D projects aimed solely at the European market.
 
Another ray of hope is the recent survey commissioned by the British Science Association suggesting that public concern in the UK over genetically modified foods has fallen slightly in recent years compared to the period a decade or so ago when campaigning against the technology was at its most strident. The EU is also currently considering whether to relax its rules on the technology and allow each member state to decide whether to impose their own ban on cultivating GM crops, or make their own deals direct with biotech companies on commercial growing.
 
It is encouraging that the International Soy Growers Alliance (representing soybean farmers in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and the USA, countries that produce 90% of the world’s soybean exports) is meeting with representatives of the EU to stress the importance of biotechnology and to discuss how their reluctance to approve GM crops is creating trade disruptions based on non-scientific reasoning.
 
So, is the outlook for transgenic crops in Europe improving? It’s worth looking at a recent debate on The Guardian website (www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/mar/09/genetically-modified-food-uk-embrace?INTCMP=SRCH) as a window on the spectrum of views. I think it is fair to say that the anti-GM lobby does not advance much in the way of rational scientific arguments against transgenic crops and, therefore, it is going to be very difficult to enter into a constructive scientific discussion with them.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a large band of undecided people in the middle that may be open to a rational discussion of the issues. In fact, given issues such as climate change and rising population levels, these people may be persuaded that it is a moral imperative to keep actively researching GM technologies.
 
An overriding concern amongst the general public with GM crops is that just a handful of private companies would likely control the global market. This is linked to concerns about globalisation and the extent to which global corporations can seem to influence the economic system. Such concerns are magnified in times of recession and by perceptions of corporate greed illustrated by some appalling recent examples amongst the banking community.
 
This all suggests to me that we need a combination of approaches to swing public opinion in favour of GM technologies. Priority should be given to a scientific debate led by academic institutions like the John Innes Centre coupled with the exploration of new business models for bringing agricultural innovations to market. For the latter, the agriculture industry might seek to learn some lessons from the multitude of public-private initiatives that are being used to make healthcare innovations accessible to the developing world. A good example is the TB Alliance (www.tballiance.org), which has just announced exciting data from a clinical study of a new drug regime for treatment of drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases.