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France’s Failure: GMOs and The Green Revolution

February 6, 2014
A notable piece titled France Fails Science Test was recently published in Cosmos by Marcel Kuntz, John Davison and Agnes E. Ricroch, three plant biologists who wonderfully illustrate how French politics beats scientific reason when it comes to the debate on GMOs. The article argues that France has far strayed from the footsteps of Norma Borlaug, once named the “Father of the Green Revolution,” and has forgotten the role that plant breeding has played in increasing ag productivity.

Starting in 2007, the authors provide a progressive look into the historical debate around GMOs within the French government,
“In 2007 President Sarkozy’s government organized a phony ‘debate’ on the environment. Invited participants included several green activists but science was not given a role in this highly political play. The government had agreed in advance to ban GMO cultivation. The deal was that in return, green organisations would take nuclear power off their agenda.”

This however violated European Union law, which required scientific evidence to back any GMO ban. So, in 2008, the French government created an adhoc scientific committee to address the risks behind GMOs and, despite finding any credible scientific evidence, filed a “so-called ‘safeguard clause’ to the European Commission (EC) to ban GM maize cultivation.” The European Court of Justice and the highest judicial authority in France, the Conseil d’Etat, later cancelled the ban in 2011.

This did not stop the French government who in “spring 2012, before the general elections (which Sarkozy lost), filed another document claiming GM maize caused environmental harm; this time as part of a judicial procedure called an ‘emergency measure’ submitted to the EC.”

In June 2013, Nature Biotechnology, published an article by Kuntz, Davison, and Ricroch titled “What the French ban of Bt MON810 maize means for science-based risk assessment.” The article “examined the arguments raised by the French government point by point, finding that contrary to the government’s claim, the French document contained no new scientific evidence.” Their findings were also supported by the Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The Conseil d’Etat cancelled the Sarkozy ban once again. Unfortunately, the new Hollande government, which comprises a number of “green” ministers, announced that it would look for ways to prolong the ban.

Kuntz, Davison, and Ricroch reaffirmed the burden that these poor decisions are placing on French farmers and argued that “they (farmers) have lost their freedom of choice.” These authors are so disheartened by the fact that “this failure of science-based decision making is a loss to our agriculture, and diminishes the international standing of France’s scientific tradition.”

To supplement this concept that environmentalists accept science in almost all areas except when it comes to the debate on GMOs, Cosmos also recently published an article titled Environmentalists’ double standards written by former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas. Mark does an excellent job of describing the apparent point that environmental groups will voice the scientific consensus on such issues as climate change, yet “deny the validity of an equally strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMO crops,” which seems to counter the “causes they pledge to defend.”
“Indeed, nearly identical tactics are frequently used both by climate change deniers and anti-GMO campaigners: politically skewed misinformation is spread via the internet and social networks; science in general and individual scientists are attacked and bullied as biased or as pawns of their paymasters; and the voices of a tiny minority of contrarian academics are aggressively promoted to give the public the false impression that ‘experts disagree’.”

So, despite scientific national consensus that GMOS are safe, why don’t these activists jump off the GMO scare band wagon? Mark notably remarks that,
“Part of the answer may lie in path-dependent inertia: the natural reluctance to admit that a campaign upon which whole careers and organisational fundraising strategies have been based was a mistake. Another reason is the vested interests that have now emerged against GMOs. It is no accident that the millions of dollars of funding for pro-labelling campaigns in California and Washington State came from big organic foods interests and ‘natural health’ internet sales quacks. This latter point reveals the likely true answer – that opposition to GMOs really acts as a conduit for opposition to modern farming in particular, and even modernity in general.”

Lynas rightly demonstrates how emotion rather than science can impact decision-making and argues that “the sad irony is that this outcome would be both a disaster for human progress and the environment.” He goes on to conclude that “anti-GMO environmentalists are thus betraying not only progressive values, but the same environmental cause they are pledged to defend.”