Humans For Agriculture: A European View on Changing Attitudes Toward Biotech

James Gurney

Gurney

James Gurney is a France-based microbiologist who comes from a farming family in the UK. Gurney, along with fellow long-time YouTuber Myles Power, host the popular League of Nerds podcast, which they began in 2013 “to talk about everything from bad science in the media, to the nerdy love of all things geeky.”

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AgriBusiness Global recently chatted with Gurney about changing European attitudes toward biotechnology as part of our Humans For Agriculture series.

How big of a role have millennials played in the pro-ag movement?
I honestly think we haven’t yet. Currently millennials haven’t engaged in any real sense. There seems to be a general pessimism of large agro/GMO. The last two decades have really been about a thin veneer layer of health obsession. Messages like “GMOs are bad while organic is good for you and the environment.” There is of course a push back that tells people, “It’s a little more complicated than that.” But fortunately there is a large apathy around the subject from millennials. I say fortunately as I believe that if pushed most would fall back onto the simplistic message that GMOs are bad. We need to break the grip that this message has and I think general skepticism is on the rise but a large hurdle is GMO.

How have you seen this movement playing out in France and other places in Europe?
France is an anti-GMO utopia in some respects. I was quite surprised when I moved here how prevalent Organic (Bio in French) is! I don’t think that it is anti-tech or anti-science here, more of a wish to do things in a certain way. Most people still believe that Organic means chemical free while adhering to a chemophobia about GMO or even conventional agro. Organic proponents have no reason to correct this large public misunderstanding.

Is the regulatory environment and public sentiment growing even more anti-GMO/agchem, and what are the ripple effects in places like Africa?
In some ways the anti-GMO sentiment in the EU isn’t a problem — we are mostly well-fed and farmers are capable of making a living. The problem is the technology could be improved by the acceptance and use, and those improvements could help developing nations a great deal. A farmer capable of making a living from their farm by increasing yield would have huge societal ramification. For example economically, having a greater security in crops could reduce interest rates on loans, helping to break poverty cycles.

Anti-GMO advocates like to chime in with, “There’s more than enough food to go around.” This is true, but that food is not in the right place. Lack of food is not the reason that holds developing nations back; having a dependable and fair investment and the access to be self-sufficient are large issues. Innovations like GMO could help bring a form of stability, if it is carried out in an ethical manner. I also find the aversion to GMO being unable to solve the entire problem insidious.

For example a GMO that can help reduce some nutrient deficiency being opposed, as it will not completely remove the problem — to me this is the same as refusing to give out blankets and aid in a war zone as the blankets and aid won’t stop the war.

I was reading Marijn Dekker’s recent piece in Politico about how lagging innovation in Europe has much to do with an obsession with risk. What would you say to this?
I largely agree with his sentiment but Europe is mostly a political term, it’s politics all the way down. I would love evidence-based policy to be the “go to” when evaluating proposals and innovations. The problem, as I see it, is that scientific evidence and politics are often opposed.

The UK was recently considering gagging scientists who receive public money from using that money to publish ideas that go against the government’s policies. That is insane! In the long run I don’t think the EU can compete with China or even India scientifically or with the adoption of innovation in our current form. This is perhaps a trade-off we make for having a freer society.

There has been a shift in the attacks, at least in North America, to chemicals from GMOs. Is it more difficult to convince people of their safety? What do you see next in this conversation?
This confuses me as a strategy. It’s maybe that people don’t find a non-browning apple, or pest resistant cotton particularly threatening. A scary and hard-to-pronounce chemical however will work, for a while. There is a wealth of information out there that this chemophobia is ridiculous. We can hope that it is the death rattle of unreason but as long as there are people peddling wares (fad diets, vitamin pills, chemical-free detergents, etc.) this message won’t die.

In Europe I believe we still need to decide on the technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. It would be hard to list it as a GMO as the results are no different from classic mutagenesis used in farming since farming began really. But I can see people having an issue due to association with
big agro. I hope the EU follows the USDA examples and places them under the non-GMO banner.