The surprised scientist or how no-one really knows why the European Union regulates biotech crops the way it does

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice announced its ruling to regulate plants, created with gene-editing, with the same set of ultra-strict rules as it does the GMOs. To put it simply – no genetically improved crop using gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR, would be allowed on the fields or markets of the European Union for the foreseeable future. Chemistry World has a very good overview of the potential consequences of this decision here.

Despite what some of you, my readers, might have expected (especially those who know me personally), this will not be a blog post where I defend, educate or science-splain genetic modifications, their forms, benefits and drawbacks. Plenty of people before me had done that and I will include throughout the text some useful links if you are new to the techniques or are unsure of the difference between some of them and why these differences are important. This NIH webpage for example, has a decent scientific intro with more links to detailed research.

The surprised scientist

The whole goal of this post is to try and understand why, AGAIN, we – the scientists, lost the battle to a cause we were unanimously supporting and ended up AGAIN being caught by surprise by this defeat.

Many expert scientist have expressed their frustration regarding the ECJ’s decision, using a variety of strong words and scientific passion to oppose and argue with it post-factum. Opinions were rich in qualifiers like “unscientific”, “retrograde” and “ignorant”, generally having surprised undertones.

My question to my fellow experts is, how come we ended up being surprised by this decision? Haven’t we learned anything about how to talk to the various sides of this debate since the last time when we had it for GMOs? I for one was unsatisfied to hear about the decision. However, I was anything BUT surprised. And here is why:

The unscientific scientists

In the debate leading up to the decision of the European Court, we, the scientists, did, for the most part, exactly what we did the last time around – in the debate leading up to the decision to restrict GMOs in the European Union. And I’m using the word “debate” here very frivolously as mostly, the discussion consisted of activists destroying research trial fields, paid for essentially by the taxes of the very consumers they were pretending to try and protect, various groups of protesters with very human concerns about safety and completely misplaced trust shouting nonsensical obscenities at scientists, and scientists hiding in labs or teaching biology and ecology over and over again to the public, when all they needed to show was their human side which made them conduct all the possible safety trials and that the risk was as high as from any other crop on the field or in the store. In all this, the consumer was treated like a 3-year-old – pushed around while the grown-ups bicker.

My real frustration of this court ruling came from the fact that while scientists employed exactly the same techniques for communication and persuasion as they did before with the GMOs “debate”, they for some reason expected now a different outcome. This, being the most unscientific approach conceivable puzzled me, to put it mildly.

The first thing we learn in college or grad school when planning experiments is – if you perform the same experiment over and over again without changing your approach, you will be getting the same results. And yet, the brightest scientists working with CRISPR, failed to see how this time around they ended up using the same tools their GMO-predecessors have. And on top of this, after decades of failures to communicate correctly the high levels of safety and the potential place of GMOs in agriculture, and they were unable to predict the very obvious outcome this unchanging approach would lead to.

The disconnected scientist

Others also expressed opinions. The industry is naturally furious – they were hoping that the gene-edited crops will be their way into Europe with improved varieties of crops, while their other productions lines of GMOs would be making a difference elsewhere in the world.

The farmers were also unhappy. Not only they wouldn’t get to benefit from some of the advantages gene-edited crops could provide them with, but they will have to compete with the partial practical allowance to import GMO crops while not being able to grow them on European soil.

I, personally, fail to see how can possibly legislators in Europe be too happy about this, since various research grants were and will continue to be given to labs around Europe to conduct scientific studies on gene-editing, while for the time being, it will not be leading to any practical solution available to the European citizens. So will funding such research in the EU become a black hole for money – a lot goes in and nothing comes out, or will it lead to a drain of discoveries, patents and IPs to more science-evidence accepting countries?

It seems that no-one really knew what to make of the gene-editing. The push for a decision due to its rapid development lead us to throw away the baby with the bath water, as we usually do when legislation should be science based, but it ends up not being so.

Caricature from the Guardian

We talked to the western consumer about values of GMOs which were of importance for the farmers in the developing world. Back then and even today, the western consumer cares little of the farmer in the developing world.

We talked to western consumers about values of GMOs of importance for the suppliers and retailers. Why would the consumer care about how much the retailers are going to save or profit? In the eye of the consumer, they are already making so much money of the consumer!

We talked to the consumers as if they were an uneducated bunch of retards or did not talk to them at all. And when there was a debate often the scientists would blurt out “oh you don’t have a scientific degree, that’s why you don’t understand the point I’m making”. Newsflash – if the public we are talking to does not understand our point – that’s our fault, not the public’s. We were clearly using the wrong ways and tools for communication and were not making our point clear for the audience we were facing. In any forms of communication this is considered disrespectful.

Disconnected world

But it is not only the scientist who were completely disconnected from the opinions of others and failing to listen and discuss. While scientists were teaching the publics science they don’t ought to know in order to make up their minds re GMOs/gene-editing, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) conducted a survey, according to which people are considerably less phased by gene-editing food than GMOs or pesticides and other potential food “contaminants” for that matter. 

Answers to the survey question "To what extent are you personally concerned or unconcerned about the following health and consumer topics?" (Click the image to see the whole published survey by BfR)

So why did the legislators then completely ignore the opinions and feelings of the consumer for the benefit of the scare-lobbyists?

At the same time activists seem to have completely ignored the fact that a prohibitive decision in the EU would not affect only the EU (they seem to be decisively doing their own same mistakes too). The legislation on gene-editing in Europe will probably have a significant knock-on effect on the farmers and agricultural practices in developing areas which trade predominantly with the EU – such as Africa. This article on Wired.com explains quite well how and why. It’s the second time in biotech human history when agri-related non-scientifically-based legislation of the privileged first world has negative effect on the developing world (here’s another article from the Guardian, outlining some of the previous cases). The question we ought to ask ourselves is “How long will we continue being selfish in taking decisions which are not only ours to take?”.

The bottom-line is, that this decision of the ECJ made the majority of the people unhappy and it was not in any way based on scientific evidence and facts. Will it also close the doors for therapies related to gene-editing? After all – plenty of medication allowed on the European market is made with the help of or entirely by genetically modified organisms and the patients don’t seem to care a single bit about that if the medication is going to cure their disease. Will gene-editing make its way to medical care but be kept away from our plates? This sort of duality seems plausible. I guess we ought to wait and see… Or rather – do our homework and work out the ways to talk WITH the different publics so next time a scientific breakthrough comes around it doesn’t suffered the same faith as these two, while the rest of the world keeps developing solutions for all our problems.

I would not like to discuss in this post the objective reasons why scientists communicated (or failed to do so) the way we did. I am consciously choosing to do this omission in order to hopefully set an example by how reviewing and accepting own flaws and previous mistakes can be a constructive mechanisms for all sides of the debate on biotech-agriculture to turn the page and start the conversation anew, without the burden of old grudges and prejudices. 

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