The debate about genetic modification seems to have run out of steam. That’s a shame, thinks Dr Sjaak Swart, who researches the interaction between science and society at the University of Groningen, including the introduction of genetically modified crops. ‘We can’t close our eyes to the risks of genetic modification (GM). On the other hand, we also can’t afford not to investigate or consider the possibilities.’
‘Safety takes centre stage in the European approach to genetic modification. Genetically modified crops are permitted, as long as they have been proved sufficiently safe. There is even a European scientific authority, the EFSA, which monitors that safety. However, advice from the EFSA about allowing GM crops is often overruled by European politicians. The genetic modification of agricultural crops doesn’t appear to be playing any role of significance in Europe anymore.’
‘Europe appears in fact to have chosen not to use any genetically modified food. Consumers are not interested and the politicians don’t want to burn their fingers on the issue. In my opinion, the resistance to genetic modification is mainly due to the fact that we’re talking about food. When you’re dealing with food, you’re dealing with something that is very close to people’s hearts. People want to decide what they eat themselves; they don’t want biotechnologists to interfere. That’s a very sensitive cultural issue. At the same time, you can see that the rejection in Europe is not total. We reject the cultivation of modified crops in Europe, but we still feed our animals genetically modified corn from America. That’s a contradiction.’
‘The European biotechnology policy makes it virtually impossible for us to make use of the innovative possibilities offered by biotechnology. That’s something we can afford to do because we can harvest or purchase more than enough high quality food while avoiding genetically modified crops. It’s a different story in Africa where the size of the harvests is not keeping up with the growth in population. African countries are searching for ways to increase their harvests, to develop crops that can cope with drought and increasing salinity better and that are more resistant to disease. It goes without saying that better infrastructure and increased professionalization of agriculture are also essential. However, in Africa they are increasingly questioning whether it is responsible to refuse to consider genetic modification.’
‘Are people in Africa closing their eyes to the risks of genetic modification? No, of course they are not. African policymakers also understand the possible risks of genetic modification for nature and for food safety – and for exports. They certainly don’t want to be faced with a European trade boycott through introducing new crops in an uncontrolled way. This is why the African Union is seeking cooperation via its subsidiary organizations with American and European partners that can help regulate genetic modification. They want to take the position of the small farmer as the starting point and learn from experiences elsewhere. Michigan State University (MSU) in the US is providing input; the University of Groningen is the European partner in this alliance.’
‘Genetic modification is not a panacea, a cure-all that will banish food shortages or an ideal way to make agriculture sustainable. It can perhaps make a contribution, though. We mustn’t close our eyes to the risks of genetic modification, and we also need to keep an eye out for value orientations and the socioeconomic consequences of GM. We simply cannot afford not to investigate or consider the possibilities of biotechnology for sustainable food production in a globalizing world with an ever-increasing population.’
Dr Sjaak Swart (1951) is associate professor of Science and Society in the Science & Society Group at the University of Groningen. He conducts research on sustainable nature management and biotechnology, among other things. He is a member of COGEM and CBD, committees that advise the Dutch government in the field of genetic modification. Within the University, he is involved in an alliance with the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) and Michigan State University, intended to support African countries in regulating genetic modification. Within this framework, the University of Groningen organized a Summer Academy this year for African policy officers involved in regulating biotechnology on European perceptions of biotechnology.
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