Viewpoint: If the EU takes its farm-to-fork goals seriously, it needs to tackle a massive ‘yield gap’ between conventional and organic farming. Agricultural biotechnology is the solution

TThe EU’s Green Deal has a ‘farm to fork’ strategy designed to meet global sustainable development goals and to at least triple the amount of land cultivated by organic farming. To achieve this goal, they may well need GMOs. An opinion piece asks the following question: Can organic farming be reconciled with advanced biotechnology in the EU, one of the most regulated agricultural regions in the world?

“GMOs, products derived from GMOs and products derived from GMOs must not be used in human or animal nutrition, nor as food, feed, processing aids, plant protection products, fertilizers, soil conditioners , plant reproductive material, microorganisms or animals in organic production. »EU Regulation Article 11

The EU is the cradle of many culinary traditions; they take where and how their food is prepared very seriously. Champagne only comes from a small region in France, the rest is sparkling wine, and there are similar restrictions on Parmesan and many other “named” food products. It is therefore not surprising that they have been reluctant to adopt the use of genetically modified organisms, GMOs. Nor is it surprising that such ancient cultures can sometimes ‘overlook’ regulatory transgression – GMO yeast, bacteria and their enzymes have been quietly used in the production of beer, bread and cheese for several decades in the world. the EU.

The “From farm to fork” (F2F) strategy

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), on the one hand, call for more food production and crop diversity, while on the other hand, attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and agricultural techniques that disrupt the ecology of the soil.

The F2F strategy is based on two underlying assumptions. First, globally, reducing hunger is a key goal and the demand for food will continue to increase. Second, organic farming is less damaging to the environment both in its farming methods and in the use of less synthetic additives or restorers for the soil. To achieve these goals, the EU wants to increase organic farming from its current 7.5% to 25% of total cultivated land. There is only one problem, a “yield gap”.

With an emphasis on soil conservation and “natural” processes and additives, organic farming does not produce the yield per hectare (an area of ​​about 2.5 acres) than industrial farming, for lack of of a better word, product. This should also not be surprising, as industrial agriculture is optimized to achieve the highest possible yields. Increasing the land to organic cultivation means either converting conventional farms to organic farms – with variable but definitive reduction in yield; or the conversion of new land to agricultural land. This conversion will involve “forests, swamps or other natural habitats within the EU”, in violation of SDG 15.

The EU, as the authors point out, is already a major importer of “vegetable oil and dietary protein”. Converting farms, further reducing yields, will require new imports. But for those who calculate the success of F2F in Brussels, that might not matter. After all, the increase in land needed to meet the EU’s higher import needs will come from Southeast Asia and South America – the resulting deforestation and loss of biodiversity are falling into their sights. “Books”, not against the EU. (In this regard, the EU continues a long European tradition of colonizing other continents for their needs, offloading greenhouse gases and deforestation rather than digging for gold, sugar or spices.) Two other global trends will impact the F2F plan. The persistent shift to a plant-based diet will worsen this yield problem while trying to make us healthier. Climate change is expected to “challenge current farming systems” and land conversion, as the EU proposes, “is responsible for half of the total climate effects of agriculture”.

Without resolving the “yield gap” between conventional farming and organic farming, the EU cannot meet the targets of its F2F plan. We must turn, as we always have, to the selection of “more resistant”, more “productive” plants to increase the yield.

The authors argue that GMO technology is a necessary tool to increase yield. They say gene editing “based on CRISPR / Cas9, will complement classical breeding methods and provide new opportunities for efficient trait management”. CRISPR is a game changer because it’s ok do not introduce “Foreign DNA” in plants, which alleviates a significant, albeit unwarranted, concern about the creation of “Frankenfoods”. The authors report a genetic alteration in barley. It turns off a gene, increasing barley’s resistance to “powdery mildew” which could be applied similarly to wheat, tomatoes and other crops. Gene editing has also helped develop fungus resistant plants that do not require copper-containing pesticides for their production. These copper-containing pesticides are permit in “organic” agriculture despite their toxicity for the most useful inhabitants of the soil because there is no non-chemical alternative.

Dr Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” holds a special place for us. The increase in crop yields he pioneered was based on the reproduction of “dwarf” traits in plants. Scientists have found genes responsible for this alteration and can find ways to speed up the development of more resilient plants that generate more product per acre without additional synthetic fertilizer – a win-win solution.

If the EU takes its F2F targets seriously, it must address the ‘yield gap’ of organic farming. This will force them to rethink their laws on the use of GMOs – more specifically, they must recognize that CRISPR and other advanced biotechnologies are similar enough to conventional, time-intensive and hope-intensive breeding that they should be authorized.

Conflict of interest

One of the ten authors of the article sits on the board of directors of Syngenta, a Chinese company involved in agricultural sciences, which emerged from the spin-offs of AstraZeneca and Novartis. You can apply as many grains of salt as you deem necessary to the authors’ arguments.

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, MD, MBA, FACS is Senior Medical Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon. He completed his MBA with distinction in the MBA in Health program at George Washington University and has been a consultant in hospitals. Although he is no longer clinically active, his writings have been presented to KevinMD and Doximity. Follow him on twitter @CRDtoday

A version of this article originally appeared on the American Council on Science and Health and has been reposted here with permission. CAHS can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg

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