In the face of a worsening climate crisis and a rapidly growing global population, it is unethical not to use GMOs and gene editing technology.
That was the conclusion of new recommendations released recently by the Danish Council of Ethics.
The council’s report, “GMO and ethics in a new era”, recommends a re-evaluation of Europe’s anti-GMO stance and calls on the European Union to change its regulatory system to focus on individual products rather than the processes used to breed them.
The council’s recommendations generated a fair amount of interest in Denmark, as they go against conventional wisdom in one of the most GMO-skeptic countries in the EU. In a 2015 poll, 55 percent of Danes said they refuse to eat GMO crops, while figures released just this week revealed that Danish consumers have further solidified their position as the world’s biggest consumers of organic foods.
The Ethics Council suggests that attitudes toward the genetic modification of food are outdated and don’t take into consideration advancements like CRISPR/CAS-9 gene editing technology or the role agricultural biotechnology can play in addressing global challenges.
“The aim of this recommendation is to try to move past the past 30 years of rather harsh discussions on GMOs. We tried to frame this issue in a new way and ask new questions,” Morten Bangsgaard of the Danish Council of Ethics told the Alliance for Science.
Bangsgaard served as the chairman of the council’s GMO working group and was among 15 of the council’s 16 members who supported its primary conclusion that “it is ethically problematic to reject GMO varieties if they can contribute to alleviating or solving significant problems.”
The council said that any ethical considerations surrounding the use of GM technology must take the seriousness of mankind’s pressing problems into account.
“It is within the context of our climate crisis and global population growth that you should look at the overall issue of whether it is ethically problematic to not use GMOs,” Bangsgaard said.
He added that the council viewed the advent of CRISPR technology as “a turning point” in how we should think about genetic modification.
“That new technology really changes the GMO discussion. The CRISPR/CAS technique is very precise and allows you to take a gene in or out of the plants. You’re not adding something from another plant,” Bangsgaard said.
Climate benefits and no proven risk
The council’s report touts the promise of crops that have been genetically modified to produce higher yields on smaller areas of land while using less fertilizer and fewer chemicals, as well as varieties that can adapt to climate change by being drought- and pest-resistant.
It also stresses that “over 20 years of research show that there is no scientific evidence that genetic modification in and of itself carries more risk than conventional plant breeding techniques” and that despite repeated claims by GMO opponents that genetically modified crops cause illness, “in none of these instances has the documentation presented by opponents been able to live up to the requirements of scientific research.”
Bangsgaard said that the process of working on the council’s GMO report was eye-opening.
“Speaking only on a personal level as a Danish consumer, and not as a member of the council, I was part of the 70 percent of European consumers who were against GMOs, but when I started working on this and did a lot of reading and discussing with experts, I changed my mind,” he said.
While the council recommends that Danish and European policymakers embrace GMO and CRISPR technology, it also stresses that it doesn’t view genetic modification as a panacea.
“It is clear that neither GMOs nor any other single solution will suffice to solve this problem [of keeping global temperature increases below the 1.5C mark determined by the Paris Accord, ed.] but even more suggests that we are in a situation where we cannot deny anything that can help prevent or limit the effects of climate change,” the recommendations read.
The council also included the views of its one dissenting member, who argued that genetic modification is “ethically problematic” because it allows for “a much more extensive interference in nature’s own processes than traditional breeding.” This sole dissenting member therefore said she could not support a change to the EU’s current GMO regulatory system.
Cautious optimism from a Danish farmer
Danish farmer Knud Bay Smidt said that while he doesn’t expect the Council of Ethics recommendations to change things overnight, they nonetheless represent a significant departure from traditional Danish thinking.
“This isn’t likely to change too much in the short term, but at least it is a 180-degree shift from what has been politically correct in Denmark,” he told the Alliance. “We’ve spent the past 25 years being against GMOs. Now we’ll likely have to spend the next 25 changing our minds.”
Bay Smidt grows cereals, rape, seeds and grass on his 300-hectare farm just east of Randers in central Denmark. He said he was particularly encouraged by the council’s recommendation that the EU change from a process-based to a product-based regulatory system, similar to that of Canada.
“I don’t have a roadmap for how that would work but if a crop is approved in Canada, we should be free to grow it here. We should be able to accept the approvals of those countries whose authorities we view as credible,” he said.
Although Bay Smidt said that Denmark’s cold climate is unsuitable for growing the world’s biggest GMO crops, soy and corn, there are other crops on the market that he and other Danish farmers would very much like to grow, including blight-resistant potatoes and rapeseed varieties that are glyphosate-resistant and high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
“Unfortunately, because of the way the situation currently stands, there are no European plant breeders that are waiting in the wings with GMO crops suitable to our conditions. So even in a hypothetical situation in which we had all the gene editing tools available to us tomorrow, it would still be years before the first European GMO crop was a commercial reality,” he said.
Still, the Jutland farmer was cautiously hopeful that the Danish Council of Ethics recommendations might make an impact on his countrymen. He also said that focusing on how genetic modification could provide Danish consumers with products that they want, like low-gluten wheat or hypoallergenic nuts, could help move the needle of public acceptance. Another winning argument, he said, was to talk more about the ways that agricultural biotechnology can help people in countries far less fortunate than Denmark. But it’s hard to go against decades of anti-GMO messaging, he conceded.
“We’ve spent 25 years reminding each other to hate GMOs. It’s something that has been passed down through generations — children see ‘GMO-free’ labels on the milk they drink, while their grandparents have memories of the Vietnam War and Agent Orange that then become associated with Monsanto and Roundup and GMOs,” he said.
“I don’t think people associate GMOs with anything positive at all, and particularly not in relation to the environment, but one can hope that the council’s recommendations will be read by ‘the right people’ and that they’ll begin to understand the connection,” Bay Smidt continued.
The Council of Ethics recommendations have been handed over to parliament, but any action is unlikely until after Denmark’s parliamentary elections on June 5.