EU researchers can’t win

AHEAD OF THE HEARD

It must be frustrating for scientists in the European Union (EU) who are involved with genetic modification (GM) research. No matter what they seem to discover that involves genetic engineering, they know their research will have to stop and be continued by scientists in other parts of the world. This is particularly galling to those involved, because publishing new and ongoing advances in science is the basic building block to getting more funding to continue the research. It also takes away any future academic glory that those EU scientists might be able to receive from their discoveries – that’s hard on the ego.

The latest EU advancement in GM research is another case in point for EU scientist exasperation. Scientists in the UK recently announced that they had developed a genetically engineered chicken that was immune to the H1N1 flu virus. This is a significant scientific advancement akin to finding a vaccine for the disease. Clearly if all chickens had this immunity it would set back the possible spreading of the disease in an epidemic. This is important in many parts of the world where poultry are raised in very close proximity to people, with the problem being that contagious diseases spread and mutate more easily when animals and people live close together.

The frustrating problem for EU scientists involved in GM research is that the EU and its representative national governments will not, by law and regulation, allow GM genetics and technologies to be commercialized and used in the EU (there are a few exceptions). What it means in the GM chicken case is that for this development to progress into actual use, the EU science and future breeding will have to be taken to a non-EU area like North America or Asia. Producers in those areas will then reap the benefits from the research. Meanwhile poultry growers in the EU will have to make do with chickens that remain susceptible to bird flu strains.

A similar situation developed after Scottish scientists cloned the first animal – a sheep. It was a scientific first, but it was destined not to advance much further than experimentation in Scotland and the EU, as there was no commercial future for this advancement. Cloning science was quickly taken up in other parts of the world where it is now on the verge of having commercial applications. EU scientists and livestock producers can only look on from afar as to how what they had developed has slipped out of their hands. It’s the same situation with GM salmon, it’s unlikely that Scottish fish farms will ever be able to take advantage of that advancement.

This situation, in the long run, will continue to put EU science, agriculture and aquaculture in a production decline as the rest of the world passes them by. One has to be surprised, with all the GM technology restrictions in place, that any GM research is sanctioned at all anywhere in the EU. Perhaps genetic research institutions are trying to stay involved in the hope that the EU will one day come to its senses.

There is some hope for that, but it has little to do with any common sense on the topic. A couple of years ago, shortages developed in EU non-GM canola and corn supplies. This threatened some sectors like vegetable oil production and livestock feeding. At the time, EU regulatory bureaucrats allowed GM feed into the country until other supplies came on stream. It would seem that certain circumstances can change even the most rigid minds. Curiously, EU regulations do allow a select few types of GM feed corn to be sold based on a technicality, it seems they were grandfathered before EU GM restrictions were put into place – go figure. The EU also allows GM cheese cultures to be used, apparently because it’s critical to their production process. I guess, GM cheese is better than no cheese in the EU.

The dark side of EU GM restrictions is that it affects the development of beneficial GM plants and animals in the rest of the world. That’s because under normal trade circumstances, the EU does not allow the importation of EU food from anywhere. That has seen grains such as wheat and barley lag far behind the production developments made with GM corn, canola and soybeans. Wheat and barley buyers have stated that since there would be no market for the GM versions of those grains there is no point in developing the. That significantly hurts grain growers in western Canada, as GM wheat and barley would probably provide great advancements in yield and disease and parasite resistance.