Europe is sleepwalking into a food crisis and politicians are doing nothing to stop it.
By Rémi Dumery
Many people are opposed to the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and believe they are dangerous for your health. Many also are opposed to the use of pesticides, and believe that there are ‘natural’ alternatives to their use in farming. Both of these beliefs are not just wrong: they are dangerous.
As the population of the world is set to grow to 10 billion by 2050, we urgently need to recognise that many of the commonly-held views in Europe on agriculture are simply not based on fact.
For most of human history, hunger and starvation were facts of life in Europe. Famines caused by crop failures would periodically wipe out hundreds of thousands of people on the continent. Each year, families would pray for the right weather which would allow them to survive to the next.
Thanks to modern agricultural techniques, this experience is today a memory. Modern pest and weed control technologies protect crops from blight and disease. Scientific innovations make more resilient crops, meaning farmers are not defenceless against capricious weather systems. These techniques allow us to grow enough food to feed half a billion people (and counting) in Europe.
As a result of this, we in Europe have become used to a world of plenty. Most children and young adults do not know what it is to not have enough food to eat.
The privilege of living in such an affluent society seems to have made people across Europe complacent. They think that because they have never known true hunger, starvation is a problem we have tamed forever. This ease of living has led some to attempt to cast aside the very technologies which make this abundance possible.
Pesticides are used in every form of modern agriculture, both organic and conventional. Without them it would be many times more difficult to protect crops from disease and pests. It is only through use of pesticides that farmers can produce enough food to feed all the mouths on this continent.
GMOs are not dangerous for human health. The science on this has been settled for 30 years. GMOs are instead one of the best technologies we have for making crops robust to pests and harsh weather, and are one of most promising methods we have of feeding the world as the climate changes and populations grow.
As the populations of cities grow and rural populations decline, people’s connection to the land weakens. Across Europe, people know less and less about where food comes from and how it is grown on farms. This can be called the ‘Nespresso effect’: what people eat and drink arrives pre-packaged, without them ever seeing what goes into it or how it is made.
This lack of connection and knowledge with the processes of modern farming means that people tend to be fearful when they hear about new technologies they do not understand. Compounding this problem, however, are politicians who seek to use this lack of understanding for political gain.
In France, for example, Emmanuel Macron has said that we can find a replacement for the herbicide glyphosate within three years. This is quite simply impossible without a miracle. He has promised to phase out glyphosate use in France. This will be hugely harmful both for French farmers - who will pay the price initially - and for European agriculture in general, as it will reinforce myths around pesticides.
Macron knows how important pesticides such as glyphosate are, but because of their unpopularity, it is a politically advantageous thing to be against them. The negative effects of removing the most important method of weed control available to farmers probably will not be felt until he has left office anyway, so why should he care?
The same applies for GMOs. In many European countries, opposing the cultivation of GM crops is hugely popular even if it is not in the interests of the people. Motivated by short term political considerations, our politicians are disregarding the long terms consequences of their decisions by supporting populist (and hugely damaging) policies when it comes to agriculture. By pandering to delusions, politicians do a disservice to their constituents, and make decisions that will ultimately harm us all.
Some politicians, in France and elsewhere, think that there are alternatives to GMOs in agriculture. The use of gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, could have the potential to provide an adequate supply of food in the future. Unlike GMOs, gene editing involves changing the genetic makeup of crops without adding in genes from other organisms.
However, the European Court of Justice recently ruled that gene editing techniques are to be covered by the same rules in Europe as GMOs, making it almost impossible to get authorisation for these techniques. As countries like France take the lead on the anti-GMO movement in Europe, the most promising alternative technologies are being halted by the EU.
Europe is sleepwalking into a food crisis and politicians are doing nothing to stop it. Instead of supporting new innovations which can help to feed an exploding world population, they are pandering to scientific illiteracy.
If any ban on pesticides is introduced, French and European food production will decrease. This loss of production will have to be offset by imports from other countries, where use of the pesticides and GMOs banned in Europe is allowed. Is this really in the best interests of European citizens? Through this attempt to maximise their popularity, politicians are saying that agriculture and food security are no longer state priorities.
Politicians across the continent need a wakeup call. Most of us have never known true hunger and starvation. If our leaders do not take action to protect and advance modern agriculture, our children may not be so lucky.
Rémi Dumery is a French farmer specialising in digital and modern agriculture
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.