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Will the European Parliament give genes a chance?

By Mark Lynas

Only a few hours remain before a crucial vote in the European Parliament, where the environment committee will decide whether to support reform of highly restrictive regulations about plant breeding.

It sounds arcane, but it isn't. This is about whether science and innovation are welcome in Europe or not, and whether farmers will be given the tools they need to still produce food in the face of the climate crisis.

The anti-science crowd is out in force, sponsored as usual by the organic lobby, because for them any use of novel scientific techniques is threatening. They are furiously lobbying MEPs to get them to vote against this new scientific innovation, and to keep so-called 'new genomic techniques' (NGTs) classed as GMOs and therefore under permanent prohibition.

In my view we shouldn't be banning GMOs either, but that's an argument we've lost in Europe for the time being. For now, it is vital that scientists, environmentalists and farmers work together and make their voices heard while there is still time on this new area of science. If we lose this vote, farmers will lose a vital potential tool, scientists will have their labs shut down, and the climate crisis will continue to spiral out of control as politicians squabble in Brussels.

That's why so many Nobel laureates, with the total now reaching 37, have signed our Open Letter to MEPs pleading for Europe's parliamentarians to "rise above ideology and dogmatism". Right now many farmers are mobilising in protests against new environmental regulations. NGTs won't solve everything, but they will help to keep farmers in business at the same time as improving the environment.

Photo of CRISPR-Cas co-discoverers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, as well as renowned authors Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, lead over 850 signatories calling for NGTs to be legalised for use in Europe.
CRISPR-Cas co-discoverers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, as well as renowned authors Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, lead over 850 signatories calling for NGTs to be legalised for use in Europe.

Many MEPs, and anti-science activists, seem confused about what NGTs even are. Misinformation abounds, and even outright conspiracy theories are circulating on social media and in the right-wing press. As a pro-science network, WePlanet believes that new innovations should not be blocked from helping to tackle our environmental crisis. To see so many Green leaders spreading anti-science myths for political reasons is particularly dispiriting.

The truth is not difficult to understand: new genomic techniques are simply a class of tools that geneticists can use to speed up the plant breeding process, by making what were previously random mutations precisely targeted at the right points in a crop's genome. The most important and well-known of these gene editing tools is Crispr, and it is no accident that the co-inventors of the Crispr technique and chemistry Nobel laureates of 2020 - Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna - are the lead signatories of our Open Letter.

If MEPs allow Crispr to be used in plant breeding in Europe, farmers will have rapid access to new generations of drought-tolerant and nitrogen-efficient crops, which will help to produce food more efficiently at lower environmental cost. If NGTs are blocked, and Europe closes its doors to this vital new area of scientific innovation, then Europe's water use, nitrogen pollution and rural greenhouse gas emissions will worsen. The organic route is a dead end: it uses much more land, and Europe will just have to import more food.

In a recent report I co-authored with Dr Emma Kovak the Breakthrough Institute, we showed that the economic losses of a European ban on NGTs could be enormous, totalling 300 billion euros per year across a whole spectrum of different areas of the economy. NGTs are tools that apply in health and medicine just as much as they do in agriculture.

That is why the vote tomorrow is so crucial, and why we need your support in showing that Europe is not closed to science, that farming has a future in this continent, and that we are serious about tackling the climate crisis. Please make your voice heard.

Email or tweet your MEP today and let them know you want them to give genes a chance and make European agriculture more sustainable.


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