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When Science is Distrusted

By Priscila Quaini Jacobitz, Government Affairs Manager at CropLife Europe.

This article was originally published on Linkedin.

In 2020 I started my journey with CropLife taking on a job that combines two of my main interests: biotechnology and trade. Both are fields where misconceptions and controversies are abundant, making it a special combo.

Working in government affairs in Brussels, I have been referred to as one of the few people still interested in Genetically Modified (GM) crops and their import into the EU. The circle is indeed small, mostly composed of scientists and activists. In my case, on top of being intellectually drawn to genetic engineering, my connection to the topic is also personal. I come from a farming family producing GM soy and maize in Brazil.

What you are now reading is the first post of a blog series about GMOs. This piece is by no means meant only for that small circle of experts. Instead, I will touch upon an issue that professionals across every area of innovation will witness at some point: distrust in science.

In case you did not know

The EU is a top importer of GM crops, which is mostly destined to its feed sector. Import dependency on high-protein feed in the EU is over 70%. Despite the ambition to boost plant protein production in the EU, import dependency is unlikely to disappear as demand for protein crops continues to grow.  

GM crops however do not get authorised for cultivation in the EU. Yes, we can buy it but not produce it – with the exception of one maize variety grown in parts of Spain and Portugal, approved in 1998.

Many factors led to this contradictory state of affairs, all of which have mistrust in science written all over it.

What is at stake

It is an understatement to say that the safety of GM crops is supported by science. The European Commission has funded at least 50 studies on GM crop safety, involving 400 independent research groups, all of which concluded that GM crops are as safe as their conventional counterparts. The same conclusion was reached by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, in the United States, which analysed data from over 900 publications over a 20-year period after commercial GM crops were introduced.

What is surprising is how such an immense body of work bears nearly no weight in the political debate that takes place today in the EU. News articles reporting on debunked studies around GM technology are elevated to the same credibility rank as scientific research. If anything, peer-reviewed studies are regarded as an inconvenience by those who are only willing to accept science when it confirms their pre-conceptions.

Many would agree there is no better recipe for flawed policy making. Everyone loses when the integrity of scientific institutions is questioned based on empty claims. Taxpayer money invested in research goes to waste. Consumers are misled. A fog is created around the evidence that should guide us as society in making informed choices.

No magic solution

What happens to GMOs today in the political debate in Brussels could happen to other areas of innovation, in agriculture and beyond. The GM saga has shown how cherry picking science is a losing game.

To turn this around, there is no magic trick other than the daily quest for objectivity. Policymaking must be guided by evidence and not fall prey to a war of narratives. The enthusiasm around new solutions and, dare I say, our success in meeting Green Deal objectives depends on it.