One reason: bioengineered seeds, a big improvement on the ones grandpa planted. The corn and soybeans grown across Illinois today are nearly all genetically modified to resist insects or tolerate herbicides. By protecting against pests and weeds, this technology helps to ensure ample harvests even in lousy conditions. Combine bioengineering with much-improved crop genetics, and the bins overflow.
So why won’t Europe let its farmers plant these improved seeds? Opposition from environmentalists and sceptical consumers has fomented a de facto moratorium on the cultivation of nearly all genetically modified crops. European Union policies discourage farmers who would be eager to adopt the technology.
Farmers want that technology because it works and it’s safe: two decades of experience here has yielded no harm to people or the environment. The EU’s food safety watchdog has given its okay for cultivation of more genetically modified crops. But politicians won’t give their okay.
The irony is that while Europe keeps its farmers from growing genetically modified crops, its citizens consume them in rising abundance. Europe especially depends on bioengineered soybeans from abroad for the animal feed used to produce meat, milk and eggs. The same crops officials won’t approve for planting routinely enter the continent via import.
Unless the Europeans change their ways, they will have to keep importing more from the US and other foreign sources, because their hypocritical policies make their agricultural sector less productive than it should be. Consider the recent report from researchers in Spain and Britain that found Europe will be unable to produce enough food to meet its agricultural policy goals without genetically modified crops: “Ultimately, the EU will become almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and feed and scientific progress,” concluded researcher Paul Christou of the University of Lleida’s Centre Agrotecnio in Spain.
The result of Europe’s politically motivated rejection of modern methods is not a hungry Europe. Even in its economic malaise, Europe can afford plenty of food. But its policies hurt the needy in poor nations that would benefit from scaled-up European farm production: Europe’s failure to grow as much food as it could, and instead boost imports, puts upward pressure on prices. High commodity prices make life more costly for those who spend a large share of their income on food.
Europeans compound the damage they do to the poor by discouraging the developing world from adopting genetically modified crops. European opponents of modern practices claim that embracing them would put poor farmers at the mercy of big companies such as Monsanto that sell state-of-the-art seed, fertiliser and pesticide. They also falsely claim the jury’s out on whether genetically modified crops can increase yields.
Some of their scare tactics are terribly patronising: the opponents suggest, for instance, that farmers in the developing world should continue planting inferior seeds in the interest of promoting biodiversity. Those same vulnerable farmers should be content to lose part of their crop to weeds, the Luddites say, because using up-to-date technology could produce new strains resistant to weedkillers – a manageable problem routinely exaggerated into a dire environmental threat.
An analysis by UK-based research firm PG Economics helps to explain why farmers embrace genetic engineering. Between 1996 and 2011, the technology has sharply boosted the incomes that farmers can earn from each planted acre. The result is greater economic and food security. Nearly every farmer who starts growing genetically modified crops decides to keep growing them.
Europe has fought this losing battle for too long. We hope upcoming free-trade talks with the US allow common sense to trump baseless fears. Another of the world’s leading economies needs to accept that bioengineering can safely help feed a hungry world.