Gene technology – no other way?

News "Many countries are already using genetic modification in the production of food. Europe may be left behind without GMOs, but there is still a great deal of scepticism among farmers and consumers in Europe," said Göran Persson during the BioConference at Ås.

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"Many countries are already using genetic modification in the production of food. Europe may be left behind without GMOs, but there is still a great deal of scepticism among farmers and consumers in Europe," said Göran Persson during the BioConference at Ås.

Göran Persson, Sweden’s former prime minister, was one of the main speakers at BioConference 2008, which was held at UMB in May. Most speakers agreed with Persson that GMOs are here to stay and will eventually gain a foothold in Europe.

There were both proponents and opponents of GMOs at the conference, which was organised by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), Nofima, Bioforsk and the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute. So the arena was set for balanced and reflected questions and discussion.

Complicated issues

Göran Persson’s speech gave a good overview of the issues involved in GMOs. He drew comparisons with the way the debate on nuclear power has developed over the years. 30 years ago nuclear power was seen as a sensible way of solving the energy shortage. It quickly became popular. Only later did people become more aware of the problems associated with handling the poisonous waste. This created growing unrest, and because a number of countries chose to ignore this the seeds of many negative viewpoints were sown.

Many people are worried about the effects GMOs may have in the longer term, and in a democracy this kind of unrest cannot be ignored. GMOs are often linked with companies with immoral or purely financial intentions. Even so Göran Persson believes that GMOs will reach Europe sooner or later and he outlined how this is indicated by present trends.

Harry Kuiper, chairman of the European Food Safety Authority’s scientific committee on GMOs, is also convinced that GMO science has come to stay.

The farmers – a highly important power factor

European farmers are very sceptical about GMOs. This was confirmed by Aina Bartmann, adviser for the Federation of Norwegian Agricultural Cooperatives. The agricultural sector is a powerful political factor in the EU and a basis for many important EU decisions. "EU negotiations are often about specific agricultural issues, and as far as Norway is concerned the Norwegian Farmers’ Union is as important a factor for GMO development as the industry," said Persson.

Vote with your trolley

At the moment consumer power is pulling the EU in an anti-GMO direction. This is part of the green wave, which started with organic food and FairTrade and has gone on to also encompass locally produced food. GMO scepticism is gathering young, well educated and committed people together. To be able to influence them, an open debate is needed.

Climate change will be very significant

Extreme weather will increase the need for foods that can tolerate, for example, long term drought or salt, or water. We are not going to stop climate change in the foreseeable future, because even though "everyone" is talking about introducing measures, politicians who "do something" will be punished by their own voters. Persson believes that it is extreme weather – and therefore the need for plants that are less sensitive to climate – that will cause the European Union to change its position on GMOs.

Development goes on

Scientific and technological development will provide ever better and safer GMO products. In addition to plants that are less climate sensitive, we may have products with extra vitamins or other forms of dietary supplements. Safe, long term testing will also make more people positive towards GMOs.

Kuiper supported Persson’s view and pointed out that at present GMOs are most interesting for the farmers because present day GMO products have gained increased tolerance to insect attack, diseases and pests. But as more benefits for the consumer are introduced, their interest will also increase. This might happen for example once we are able to add genes that contain health benefits or can combat allergies.

GMOs and patents

Odd Arne Olsen, professor at UMB, took up the highly topical theme of "patenting GMOs". He is worried about pharmatisation and believes the regulations are actually counter-productive, in that they only give the big companies the opportunity to develop GMO patents, because nobody else can afford to.

At present it is the genes that protect against insect attack that are in focus. But in the future new types of genes will be developed, genes that might provide plants with extra vitamins or reduce pollution. "The fact that it takes such a long time to develop a gene contributes to the pharmatisation of agricultural technology, because the market potential of crop genes is enormous," Olsen pointed out.

During the panel debate he was supported by Nofima’s group CEO Ørjan Olsvik, who stressed the research centres in Norway: "If we do not research into genetic materials, we will simply be passed over and left behind," he concluded.

Pictures:

Göran Persson made a glittering contribution to the bioconference

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