As climate change threatens European agriculture, debate over GMO crops is reignited

An aerial view of a combine harvesting wheat last August in the Netherlands.
An aerial view of a combine harvesting wheat last August in the Netherlands.(Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain — Last summer in Europe marked a turning point for agriculture, with searing temperatures that broke historical records, and droughts that dried up rivers and caused crops to shrivel.

With similar scenarios predicted for this year as global temperatures continue to rise, some experts are once again pushing the use of new strains of crops currently classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are capable of withstanding heat waves and drought to help the continent adapt to changing weather patterns and help save its agricultural industry.

“Plants derived using new genomic techniques could play a key role in developing innovative and sustainable ways to protect harvests from pests, diseases and climate change effects,” a spokesperson for the European Commission told Yahoo News.

Europe, however, has a contentious history with GMOs, which were loudly rejected 20 years ago due to fears over how the plants could affect ecosystems and human health. Since then, however, with technological advances, crop seeds are now produced with gene editing — the process of altering a plant’s own DNA — replacing the old method of simply inserting new genes from a foreign species, like bacteria.

A combine harvesting wheat, and cracks in the soil of a wheat field in the United Kingdom last August.
Cracks in the soil of a wheat field in the United Kingdom last August. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The biggest difference between gene editing and GMOs is with gene editing no foreign DNA is inserted into a plant,” Filip Cnudde, leader of the Biotech Regulatory Team at Corteva Agriscience, told Yahoo News. Instead, a plant’s own DNA is manipulated, and in a manner much quicker than conventional breeding, he added.

But gene-edited plants are treated like GMOs in the EU, meaning they must go through many more hoops than conventional plants. Even approval for genetically modified animal feed is highly regulated. “Under current regulations, GMO import approvals for food and feed take around six years,” as well as millions of euros spent on risk assessment studies, Petra Jorasch, manager of plant breeding and innovation advocacy at trade association Euroseeds, told Yahoo News.

This fall, a chorus of agriculture ministers, scientific academies and biotech seed companies urged the EU government to revamp restrictive regulations on plants derived from new genomic techniques. Europe needs “to rethink some traditional approaches to food production in favor of new, modern techniques,” Czech Agriculture Minister Zdeněk Nekula told EU agriculture ministers gathered in Prague in September of last year. Speeding up approval of gene-edited plants is “a reform that we consider urgent,” The Federation of Spanish Scientific Societies announced in October. New genome technologies could help crops “by improving nitrogen efficiency, reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and producing plants that require less water, fertilizers and [pesticides],” wrote Diana Lenzi, president of the European Council of Young Farmers.

A farmer drives a tractor past rows of apple trees on a farm.
A farmer drives a tractor past rows of apple trees on a farm in Faversham, U.K., last October. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The U.K., which left the EU in 2020, recently loosened restrictions on field tests of gene-edited plants, such as barley designed to need less fertilizer, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. A law differentiating between gene-edited plants and GMOs is anticipated to pass U.K.’s Parliament shortly.

The EU appears to be following suit. Regulations for gene-edited plants are currently being “adapted to technological developments,” the European Commission spokesperson said.

But some farmers, consumer groups and environmental organizations remain opposed to the adoption of any kind of bioengineered plants in Europe, where only one genetically modified crop — an insect-resistant maize — is commercially grown, mainly in Spain. Two decades ago, Europeans vociferously spurned the original GMOs, dubbed Frankenfoods, with protesters ripping up test fields and dumping genetically modified grains from silos to prevent them from taking hold in Europe. Unlike in the U.S., GMOs never gained much ground in Europe, with 19 countries banning their cultivation, despite a dearth of documented effects on human health.

“We’re going to fight this to the end,” Nina Holland, a researcher at consumer group Corporate Europe Observatory, said of upcoming EU regulation changes that she said were too heavily influenced by biotech lobby groups.

An ear of corn on a farm in Hungary.
An ear of corn on a farm in Hungary last August. (Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The biotech seed industry pretends that the GMOs resulting from ‘new techniques’ are not GMOs,” Italian farmer Antonio Onorati, a member of the seeds working group at European Coordination Via Campesina, an association of small farmers, told Yahoo News. “With their false promises and biased research, they’re trying to sneak GMOs onto the plates and into the fields of EU citizens and farmers.”

Onorati’s group is part of a coalition of 50 nongovernmental organizations that met with EU officials earlier this month to present a petition signed by 420,000 Europeans demanding that the EU refrain from reclassifying gene-edited plants as different from previous genetically modified plants. They worry that if gene-edited plants are considered conventional plants, they will be able to sidestep extensive safety assessments, DNA tracking in fields and labeling that Europe has required of GMOs since 2001. They also point to a ruling by the EU’s highest court in 2018 that affirmed that gene-edited foods are still GMOs.

Germany’s environment minister, Steffi Lemke, is also urging the EU to stay on its former course. “I believe the European Commission is taking a step in the wrong direction with its efforts to water down risk assessment for plants created using new genomic techniques,” Lemke told Yahoo News. “Current EU law provides a good basis for systematically analyzing risks — and also for ensuring the traceability of genetically modified organisms in nature and freedom of choice for consumers, the food industry and farmers. We cannot afford to cut corners here.”

Rows of withered corn plants in a dry field in eastern Germany last summer.
Withered corn plants in a dry field in eastern Germany last summer. (Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty Images)

Jorasch believes gene-edited plants should be freed from those requirements because new technologies, such as CRISPR — called “genetic scissors” — make seed editing more precise in tweaking a plant’s own genetic code. “We now know which genes are responsible for certain characteristics in plants, and we can target an individual gene and make a change with a more predictable outcome,” she said. The current situation in the EU, she said, is not at all conducive for bringing those changes to farmers.

“Gene-editing technology,” added Corteva’s Cnudde, “allows us in a very precise way to make a targeted change. It brings a unique level of control” — that is even more exact, he said, “than some traditional plant breeding techniques,” which are not regulated. “So what would be the scientific rationale, [for keeping more stringent regulations on gene editing] when we know exactly what we’re doing?”

Critics, including farmer Onorati, remain unconvinced, pointing out that gene editing is not as precise as promised. His concern is that “with the new GMO techniques [i.e., gene editing], it’s proven that there are unintended consequences that cause plants alternative problems to survive or thrive in real-world conditions.” (Unintended consequences have been flagged as a potential problem in gene editing of embryos as well.)

Others are more open to the possibilities presented by gene-edited plants. “I’d be happy to welcome every technological advance that is proven to be safe,” a farmer in central Spain told Yahoo News. “Especially if they help in addressing big issues like climate change, water consumption or use of pesticides.”

However, Holland of Corporate Europe is worried that most gene-edited seeds are being developed by a handful of biotech companies, which already control much of the global seed supply. Bayer (which bought Monsanto), Corteva (which bought DowDuPont and Pioneer Seeds), ChemChina (which bought Syngenta) and BASF are responsible for over half the world’s seed sales.

A Bayer facility in Dormagen, Germany.
A Bayer facility in Dormagen, Germany. (Ying Tang/NurPhoto)

Buying their gene-edited seeds “will just lead to more concentration in the seed market, meaning that very few firms get a bigger grip over the food that’s being grown,” Holland said. “These corporations could raise prices, making seeds more expensive. They could withdraw some products from the market and replace them with patented gene-edited crops. So they will simply have more power over the entire food system, which in itself is highly detrimental for the public interest.”

Cnudde said that Corteva is widely sharing gene-editing technology with nonprofit organizations and academic researchers to foster development worldwide. “This is a technology with tremendous potential, that’s relatively straightforward and easy to use,” he said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a great tool for breeders in developing more resilient plants that are more resistant to extreme weather.”

But for Jorasch of Euroseeds, the biggest issue is how long it is taking Europe to open its doors to gene-edited food while climate conditions are worsening. Even though producing gene-edited plants is faster than conventional breeding, which she said can take more than a decade, to get plants from the laboratory to the marketplace requires several steps, including greenhouse tests, field trials and registrations. “That’s why it’s urgent that we get new regulation in place soon,” she said. “Even if we get approval tomorrow, it will still be two to four years to get it to market.”

Once the European Commission formally presents its proposals in June, it still needs approval from two other EU bodies, including the European Parliament. Even if gene-edited seeds get a green light — and biotech companies believe that they will — they won’t be pushing up in European soil until 2026 at the earliest.