Whatever happened to green biotech in Europe? Despite being one of the most vibrant and innovative industries on the planet, with the potential to solve many of our greatest challenges, green, or agricultural, biotech is a never-ending source of angst in Europe and increasingly, in the U.S., where non-governmental organisations and organic interests increasingly are spreading the same sorts of misinformation that undermined public confidence in green biotech in Europe. (Check out Jimmy Kimmel’s fantastic mockumentary on California organic food shoppers’ complete obliviousness to the meaning of GMOs, which they claim to despise.)
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980’s, Europe was very much at the forefront of agricultural, or green biotech, leading with some of the best minds and research, such as British geneticist Don Grierson– the father of the delayed-ripening tomato, which was the first biotech crop to be cultivated, and the first biotech whole food to be sold in the UK (in the form of a popular and great-tasting tomato puree).
But since then, Europe has fallen far behind on the biotech agenda. Stringent government regulation spurned by public scepticism, as well as a lack of funding for innovation, has stunted the growth of Europe’s biotech industry. Despite the weight of scientific evidence and the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) repeated claims of equivalence between biotech and organic crops, only 2,083 biotech companies exist in Europe, of which two-thirds are British. This compares with more than 14,000 registered in the United States. That’s a pretty damning statistic.
It’s also pretty depressing. Europe has the potential be a world leader in biotechnology. We still boast some of the greatest minds in science, and we still have the potential to produce much of the most cutting-edge research in biotech. Yet that potential is currently serving as a badly missed opportunity.
Just to be clear, Monsanto’s business in Europe is focused 99% on non-biotech maize, oilseed rape and vegetable seeds. More than half of our research and development spending world-wide invests in non-GM technologies. We have withdrawn all applications for the cultivation of new biotech crops in Europe, and have no plans to submit any new ones anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think what’s unfolding in Europe is a tragedy, both for Europe and for the signal that Europe’s anti-scientific hysteria about supposed “Frankenfoods” is sending the rest of the world.
When you consider that European governments and policy makers are purportedly looking for growth and job creation opportunities in knowledge rich areas, giving green biotech the cold shoulder seems completely counter-intuitive. Surely the job creation prospects alone should be enough for European governments and policy makers to consider the role of science in Europe on merit, and view its potential to carry Europe into the middle of the century? And that’s not to mention the potential for biotech to save and improve lives, and to help feed us all well into the future.
There are some specks of light on the horizon, however. Italian senator and scientist Elena Cattaneo was quoted last week in the popular Italian newspaper La Repubblica pointing out that the role of science was to improve to the lives of others, and that by ignoring scientific evidence, we are effectively turning our backs on those whose lives could be improved with biotech.
Whilst these comments are far from heralding the start of a renaissance of green biotech in Europe, they do offer some hope that governments and policy makers in Europe might start taking biotech in Europe seriously again, and start valuing the benefits of biotech. But we need more than hope. Otherwise, green biotech in Europe will indeed become an oxymoron – an outcome that Europe can ill afford to let happen.