Biotech in Europe: An insider’s view

by Cole Mueth

September 14, 2016

Cole Mueth is enrolled in the molecular plant sciences Ph.D. program at Washington State University.

Most Alliance for Science members are familiar with the work that NGOs and universities do to advance the responsible use of biotechnology in agriculture. What many biotech enthusiasts may not realize is the valuable work being done around the world by the US Department of Agriculture s Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA-FAS). I had the fortune of being an intern at the FAS Office of Agricultural Affairs in Germany this summer. I learned a great deal about the social and legislative challenges surrounding biotechnology in the European Union.

The FAS Mid-Europe office, based in the US Embassy in Berlin, covers Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia. The Office of Agricultural Affairs helps US businesses to market American agricultural products abroad. They also collect and publish market data, assist with trade shows, and serve as a diplomatic liaison with foreign agricultural ministries. Together, the four countries covered by FAS Mid-Europe have 100 million consumers, who import more than $110 billion in agricultural goods annually (source: Global Trade Atlas). America exports large quantities of fruits and nuts, soybeans, beverages, and seafood to this region.

Although they vary widely in landscape, population, and agricultural production, most European countries share one important characteristic: a strongly negative sentiment towards agricultural biotechnology, especially genetically engineered crops. Hungary passed a constitutional amendment banning GE technology. Germany has hundreds of biotech-free regions, in which farmers pledge not to plant seeds carrying such traits; consumer polls indicate that around 80% of Germans oppose genetic engineering. On the other hand, a small but vocal minority staunchly supports agricultural and medical biotech. Germany is home to Bayer Crop Science, BASF, and KWS, all large companies that develop GM seeds for sale in other countries. The region also imports millions of tons of soy protein for animal feed, nearly all of which is glyphosate-resistant soy from North and South America. This apparent incongruity plays out in interactions among constituents, state governments, federal ministries, and the European Union.

Regulation of genome editing techniques illustrates how this debate affects the EU s complex political economy. The European Commission supports the need for continuous progress in plant breeding techniques, which can help to overcome some limitations of traditional breeding and enlarge the portfolio of products developed in the EU, and states that the safety of plants produced using zinc finger nuclease and cisgenesis should be evaluated case-by-case. However, individual EU member states disagree on whether such techniques fall under the same regulatory framework for GMOs as transgenic plants. But even within a single member state, various ministries can reach very different conclusions.

Last year, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, an office within the Ministry for the Environment, released a legal analysis arguing that genome editing should be regulated as genetic engineering under German law. A month later, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, an independent office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, disputed this interpretation. Their report argued that point mutations performed using CRISPR-Cas9 and oligotide-directed mutagenesis carry no DNA insert, and are indistinguishable from mutations produced by conventional breeding or by chance.

Members of a parliamentary advisory council backed this opinion in June of this year. Nevertheless, the regulatory limbo s net effect is that companies producing genome-edited seeds (such as Cibus oilseed canola) remain unable to market their products. In cases where two federal ministries disagree, German delegates to the EU often simply abstain from voting on measures that would affect all 28 Member States. Indeed, abstention has become common for Germany on most biotechnology issues, including approvals for GM crop varieties and re-approval of Roundup herbicide.

Reporting on the political process directly from Berlin drove home an important lesson, which I had learned by rote, but had not yet experienced firsthand. For any contentious issue, there is seldom a consolidated government position. Although it is convenient to think of entire nations being for or against propositions decided in Brussels, the underlying political reality of course reflects party politics, regionalism, and intragovernmental struggles.

So what role does the United States have in this process? For the most part, the task of USDA-FAS is simply to show up and listen. Both American and local staff attend numerous parliamentary events, farmers union meetings, and gatherings of agricultural attach s from around the world. The networking connections made at these events ensure that U.S. officials have the most current information available. Moreover, it is a chance to ask politicians and businesspeople about the tradeoffs and incentives they face. The result is the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN), most of which is publically available to all on the USDA website.

The Office of Agricultural Affairs also does direct advocacy work. For example, they are hosting an upcoming biotech symposium at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest this month. A panel of European and American scientists will discuss the benefits and risks of genome editing techniques; European farmers, journalists, and students will be in attendance. The event will be an opportunity to provide sound information, and counter misinformation, in a region with a tumultuous relationship with biotechnology. The event will also draw attention to the contribution of the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service as it performs the important work of agricultural diplomacy in Europe.