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'Ireland's decision to prohibit GM crops doesn't make sense'

Two eminent plant biotechnologists argue that the Irish government has made the wrong decision to opt out of growing GMOs here.

Drs Eoin Lettice & Barbara Doyle Prestwich

TWO RECENT DECISIONS, one at a European level and one at national level, puts Irish agriculture at risk of falling far behind the rest of the world.

At a time when we should be focussed on building a robust agriculture system that can cope with global climate changes, we seem doomed to repeat the failures of the past and insist that farmers work with one hand tied behind their back.

Just last month, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that a novel plant breeding method known as CRISPR/Cas should be regulated in the same way as ‘traditional’ genetically modified (GM) crops.

The court ruled that: “organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO directive”.

No credible scientific evidence for a go-slow

This, despite the fact that CRISPR/Cas is a phenomenally precise method of modifying genes – far more precise than traditional breeding or even GM technology. The regulations that govern the use of GM technology at EU level have served only to halt research and development on GM in Europe with no credible scientific evidence for such a go-slow.

Now, some would seek to use the same restrictive regulations to halt this new technology.

The court also ruled that only “certain mutagenesis techniques” will fall into this category.  This doesn’t make any sense as for decades plant breeders have been using mutagenesis to breed new crop varieties and it has a proven safety record.

We now have a newer mutagenesis technique at our disposal (CRISPR/cas) that can achieve the same results but in a much more precise way. With its ruling, the ECJ has effectively stymied research in this area, hampering the development of Europe’s bioeconomy and jeopardising food security.

We also note the Irish government’s recent decision to prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified crops in Ireland. As the rubber-stamping of an EU directive, this was heralded as “copper-fastening” Ireland’s GM cultivation-free status.

At odds with climate action

The decision, however, is completely at odds with Ireland’s obligations and ambitions for climate action and it is grossly misleading to equate “GMO cultivation-free status” with “green, sustainable food [production]” which is the basis for which the government recommended opting out of growing GM crops in Ireland.

This hijacking of the terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ is not new but is disingenuous to say the least. Disallowing the cultivation of GM crops is not the pinnacle of sustainable food production that it is often trumpeted.

Gene-edited crops have the potential to cut climate emissions in agriculture and boost global food security. Their use in agriculture needs to be regulated but not by the draconian, moribund regulations that currently apply to GM crops in Europe. This is a new technology and such crops are far more ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ than they are given credit for and their use should be explored as part of any sustainable food production system, even organic agriculture.

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Reduce pesticide application

The advantages of cultivating GM crops are not insignificant: for example, their adoption has reduced pesticide application in agriculture by 6191 million kg worldwide for the first 20 years of their use (1996-2015). The technology has also reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture equivalent to taking 11.9 million cars off the roads.

We cannot afford to be complacent in Ireland with respect to climate action and food production.  A report on 18 June highlighted how Ireland is ranked “second worst in EU for tackling climate change” and will not meet EU 2020 commitments thus facing substantial fines.

We will be discussing these and many other related issues at the congress  of the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) which takes place in Dublin this week. The major international meeting will bring together scientists from over 50 countries to discuss and present the latest research findings in the area of plant biotechnology.

It offers a unique opportunity to bring the science of GM crops and biotechnology to the fore and to demonstrate the weight of scientific evidence on the safety and economic viability of utilising biotechnology in agriculture.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a lecturer at University College Cork, a member of the IAPB Executive and Treasurer of the IAPB. Dr Barbara Doyle Prestwich is a lecturer at University College Cork and President of the IAPB.

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Drs Eoin Lettice & Barbara Doyle Prestwich

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