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Embracing technology paramount for sustainability

While the recent trade dispute between the United States and China has taken center stage in terms of its impact on agricultural trade, another disagreement — one that pits the E.U. against 16 of its trading partners — has received much less attention but also hinders free trade.

The E.U. recently began implementing measures that effectively prohibit the use of pesticides that most of the world’s major grain producers use for what they insist is safe and sustainable agricultural production. In a letter to the World Trade Organization in July, 16 nations, including the United States, Canada, Brazil and Australia, argued that the E.U. is imposing a “non-tariff trading barrier on agricultural goods.”

 
The E.U. is essentially taking a hazard-based approach to pesticides, where regulators focus on the chemicals’ potential to do harm, while most nations follow a risk-based approach, in which scientists look at realistic exposure levels and determine if those levels could be harmful to humans. “It appears that the E.U. is unilaterally attempting to impose its own domestic regulatory approach onto its trading partners,” the countries wrote in their letter.

The issue of disputed pesticide tolerance levels speaks to a larger point made by Randall Giroux, vice-president of food safety, quality and regulatory for Cargill, at the International Grains Council Conference in June. Addressing an audience of agribusiness officials from more than 50 countries, Giroux said the world’s public and private sectors must do a better job to ensure consistent and practical agricultural trade policy between nations that minimizes uncertainty, which is the enemy of investment and prosperity.

How do the public and private sectors get on the same page? It begins with making decisions based on scientific evidence. For instance, about 90% of scientists believe GMO foods are safe to consume, a view that is shared by the World Health Organization and other health-focused groups. Yet, the E.U., where the issue of genetically modified food is a political hot potato, has been out of step with its trading partners by historically placing greater restrictions on products containing GMOs.

Unfortunately, the E.U. also views gene editing — perhaps the most exciting agricultural-based technological breakthrough in recent memory — with skepticism. Gene editing allows for the improvement of agricultural traits by plant scientists, making crops more resistant to disease and more capable of delivering maximum yield. Legislation has been passed in the E.U. that imposes extensive risk evaluations before gene-edited organisms can be planted or sold as crops, essentially giving it the same stringent legal status as GMOs. European scientists are appealing to the newly elected European Parliament and European Commission to reconsider their position.

Global agriculture is charged with the task of feeding the growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050. Whether it’s utilizing gene editing, GMO crops or safe levels of pesticides, the tools are available to provide more sustainable and efficient agricultural production. But for these goals to be realized, the global food system must work with technology, not against it.


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