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Science

GMOs: Europe risks missing out on a revolution

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by National Cancer Institute

While genetic engineering progress promises to revolutionise many sectors, Europe remains very committed to its precautionary principle...

While genetic engineering progress promises to revolutionise many sectors, Europe remains very committed to its precautionary principle. Nowhere is regulation as prohibitive as in Europe!

If the European Union is proud of its precautionary principle, it is, unfortunately, nothing to boast about. The latest innovations in genetic engineering open up unprecedented prospects for humanity: the challenge is not to miss out on such a revolution.

Gene therapy, for example, makes it possible to treat rare diseases of genetic origin. Thanks to regulations favourable to innovation and experimentation, the United States has become one of the world's leading centres for research into gene therapy, including treatments for sickle cell disease, fatal muscle diseases, HIV and many types of cancer. Britain has also distinguished itself from other European countries by becoming the first country in the world to allow mitochondrial replacement therapy. Across the Atlantic, this technique has already saved a child from Leigh's Syndrome, a disease that affects the nervous system.

Genetic modification also promises to revolutionise modern agriculture. Thanks to GM crops, it is already possible to produce drought-resistant plants and animals - a significant advantage in the fight against climate change. Genetic engineering can also make crops more resistant to disease, increase their yield and even their fibre content - or conversely reduce their trans fatty acid content. For example, Brazil has developed a tomato-rich in antioxidants and a soybean resistant to a plant pest that destroys crops and reduces yields. 

Finally, new techniques are also safer. Indeed, gene editing is different from early genetic engineering techniques. While the latter consists in randomly inserting genetic material into the genome, the former allows precise control of the mutations. It is similar to the genetic mutation that can occur in nature, except that it is no longer random but controlled. Eventually, it accelerates the course of biological evolution. 

As biochemist Jean-Yves Déaut points out in an interview for the journal European Scientist, "the scientific world agrees that the technologies developed in NBT (new breeding technologies) are more precise and present fewer risks than the old methods".

However, the European Union remains blind to these latest advances. On 25 July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided, instead of adapting the interpretation of the law to the new technological reality, to completely ignore the evolution of scientific knowledge: "organisms obtained by mutagenesis constitute GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down in the GMO Directive". The EU, therefore, makes no legal distinction between different generations of GMOs. 

All the more so as the GMO Directive (Directive 2001-18) to which the ECJ refers is already very restrictive.  In its spirit, as Marcel Kuntz, a researcher at the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) explains, it authorises the dissemination of GMOs that are recognised as safe. In reality, he continues, this means that "when an issue becomes controversial in the media (...), it will be necessary to demonstrate zero risks, which is of course impossible". The GMO directive, therefore, provides the naturalist clan with a legal basis to block any innovation. 

As Catherine Regnault-Roger, a member of the French Academy of Agriculture, points out, "in addition to scientific opinions, there is a political phase of votes by the Member States and the European Parliament, which give rise to debates in which scientific considerations are not at the heart of the debate". 

Therefore, the systematic suspicion towards GMOs today reflects less a scientific consensus on the subject than an anti-progressive ideology inspired by an idealised vision of nature on the one hand, and a demonisation of the human spirit on the other. 

To prevent pressure groups from depriving consumers of the latest technological advances for ideological reasons, as is the case today, the Consumer Choice Center advocates replacing this aberrant regulation with a genuine "Principle of Innovation" which would let scientific agencies independently determine the effectiveness and safety of products. 

Instead of serving as a rational basis for political decision-making, science is entirely subject to the precautionary ideology's diktat. At a time when science and innovation are the answer to the significant challenges of the 21st century, such subordination amounts to shooting oneself in the foot.  

Europeans should ask themselves the following question: "Who will be responsible if, in the future, we have still not cured today's diseases with tomorrow's technology, simply because unfounded fears have got in our way?". Yesterday's regulations are no longer adapted to today's technologies and tomorrow's progress. We need regulation that looks to the future, not to the past.