Going against fears in America


Every day, 2400 plants pose for a photo session at the Monsanto research greenhouse outside Raleigh, North Carolina. One by one, like bags arriving on an airport belt, they are taken from the sun to the studio and captured, for scientists from four corners of the world to subsequently examine their genetic potential.
Here, in the middle of what is known as the Research Triangle Park – one of America’s biggest scientific hubs – some of the world’s leading biotechnology companies have clustered to develop new seeds and plants for 21st century agriculture.

In 1977, Mary-Dell Chilton demonstrated that genes responsible for disease can be removed from a bacterium without affecting its ability to insert its DNA into plant cells, hence modifying a plant’s genome.
On this day of in spring, with blue skies covering Sugar Maples outside, Ms. Chilton, 73, sits in her laboratory at Syngenta Biotechnology. This Swiss company now employs more than 100 scientists relocated from Europe because of restrictions on GMO research, in a Research Park facility bearing Ms. Chilton’s name.

In the EU since the genome discovery, the legal framework – and to a lesser extent public opinion – turned vividly against GMOs. By 1992, British tabloids coined the term ‘Frankenfoods’, and rarely have so many been so afraid of so little.
Except today there is a real fear that Europe by going against GMO science might be losing more than valuable biotech jobs; a new generation of GMO research no longer only focuses on securing plant resistance to pesticides, but rather the coining of healthier foods – such as Golden Rice that can help alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency, which causes blindness amongst millions of children in poor countries, and more climate resilient crops that use less water.
In a clear sign of this technology’s potential, globally for the past five years GMO research has outspent traditional research on pesticides.
Meanwhile, every day 150.000 more people are born to this planet whilst in Asia the middle class population is set for an exponential increase in the coming decades – from some 500.000 million today to some 1.7 billion in 2020 and 3.3 billion seventeen years from now, in 2030.
So demand for food will increase enormously, whilst concerns for deforestation caused by agricultural expansion in vulnerable tropical lands rich on biodiversity and indispensable as carbon sinks are very real.

In the Research Triangle Park, I am asked if Europe might be about to change its stand on technological advances that hold potential to increase productivity on existing farmlands?
Of course, with time change will happen, and enhanced understanding of the effects of indirect land use changes – so called ILUC – might bring about a new valorisation of sustainable productivity in agriculture; but as is often the case when dealing with fears, it seems difficult to predict a change from irrationality.
Rather, a periodical tendency for selective science denial – be it on climate change in America or GMOs in Europe – might simply be a common part of the Western mind set.