I recently attended the European Commodity Exchange in Paris, a gathering of the grain and food business from throughout Europe, and I spoke on a panel sponsored by Syngenta about future grain demand and our ability to meet it. Yet, during the question and answer period, nearly all of the questions were about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Strong support was evident for the "precautionary principle," which is used to justify Europe's great reluctance to approve GMOs in the food supply. At the same time, much was made of efforts to ensure that food is being produced sustainably, a commendable trend where European companies are clearly in the lead.
I mentioned the strong record of accomplishment GMOs have in world food production, with 11 crops now produced with GMO technology on 170 million hectares in 28 countries. And after nearly 20 years of experience, there is no credible evidence of any health problems.
But, I missed the chance to talk about the huge environmental benefits that the products of modern biotechnology have brought to U.S. agriculture. We have widely adopted "no till" and minimum tillage farming in no small part because herbicide resistant traits reduce the need for mechanical weed control. That saves time and money and means we burn less fuel in our machinery. Less tillage improves soil, enhancing water infiltration and reducing runoff, improving the clarity of our streams and rivers. We use fewer pesticides and store more carbon in our soils.
The better yields we get from excellent crop varieties protected by biotech traits mean less pressure to farm rain forests and other fragile lands. In short, it makes our modern farming system much more sustainable. And with more new products coming from research, the benefits are only beginning.
Europe, however, despite its sustainability efforts, is missing the boat by not adopting modern biotechnology. The idea of "precaution" makes intuitive sense, but not as it is being applied. The current approach denies Europe and other countries that follow her lead the benefits of biotechnology.
Louis Pasteur was a Frenchman, but in France one can still buy unpasteurized cheeses. Every now and then somebody dies from doing so. Food borne diseases are a serious problem that got no mention at this forum. But the products of modern biotechnology, properly regulated and used, bring no new food risks. None.
Early in October, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission Dr. Anne Glover publicly said, "there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health ... and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food." She concluded that she believes the precautionary principle no longer applies as a result.
We agree with Dr. Glover. To deny European farmers the use of biotechnology, to forego its very real environmental benefits and the health and other consumer benefits that will come is not precaution, it is foolhardiness.