Genome editing in agriculture. Implications for society

Science and technology have had a major impact on society, and their impact is growing. By drastically changing our means of communication, the way we work, our housing, clothes, and food, our methods of transportation, and, indeed, even the length and quality of life itself, science has not only altered the way we live, it is also challenging the moral values and traditional way of organising society. In recent years, the need for a stronger nexus between the worlds of science and policy has been identified, but there is still much to learn about how to translate effectively between these two worlds.

This is why Re-Imagine Europa supports the establishment of a regular space to discuss how new technologies will impact society and – going beyond the usual science-framing – delve into the broader impact this will have on society.

The first edition organised together with the European Commission’s Science Advice Mechanism (SAM) will explore the possible impact on society of genome editing in agriculture. Genome editing techniques enable the development of a wide range of agricultural applications and the ethical, legal, social and economic issues of their use are discussed intensively. The debates touch upon people’s beliefs, values, and concerns, as well as the underpinning science.

This was highlighted by the public reactions to the Court of Justice of the European Union’s judgement of 25 July 2018 concerning the regulatory status of organisms obtained using new techniques of directed mutagenesis, including ‘gene editing techniques’, and by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors’ own-initiative statement, published 13 November 2018.

Based on this scientific advice, Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Professor Janusz Bujnicki will kick-start the discussions around the question: ‘Challenges and opportunities of genome editing in agriculture – is Europe prepared for them?’ The event will be structured as a high-level salon to allow for real exchange and discussions. Organised as a lunchtime event, after the initial keynote speech, the participants will be seated around five different tables, each table discussing a different angle of the debate to enter into the complexity of the ethical, strategic and far-reaching effects of this technology.


Chair of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and Former Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)


Member of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (Warsaw)

Thank you very much for attending this new event of Euromind, the platform where I have intended to bring the scientific and the political sphere closer together.

Climate change is one of the world’s main problems.

There is solid evidence on the role of CO2 on the greenhouse effect. I will cite just two: in 1859, John Tyndall demonstrated that the presence of traces of CO2 or water vapour in a tube’s gas mixture significantly increased its temperature. And more recently, data from NASA satellites show that the Earth emits heat to the outside except at the wavelengths absorbed by CO2.

CO2, as well as water vapour and other molecules, absorb radiation, contributing to an increase in temperature and climate change. From here it follows that the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more the temperature will increase due to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect has a very necessary regulatory function: without molecules that cause the greenhouse effect, the nights would be frosty and the days burning, as we see on the planet Mercury. With too much CO2, the planet could become a hell like Venus. Life on Earth, therefore, requires a balance between these two extremes.

To doubt these facts is not to respect scientific objectivity. It is dangerous and absurd.

If the problem of climate change was reduced to the realm of the natural sciences, it would be resolved. It is, however, a much more complex issue. Much of the increase in atmospheric CO2 is due to economic activity. As fossil fuels are so cheap, their consumption has allowed more and more individuals to leave the situation of extreme poverty. It is the main remedy for poverty, and that explains the increase in life expectancy around the world, and that people are living better and better.

The problem of climate change is therefore not unique to the natural sciences, but also concerns the economy and, of course, politics. And in the social sciences there are no unique solutions, nor are these perfect. For example, there is a choice to criminalize the use of fossil fuels, but this decision is at the expense of the most vulnerable individuals in society and also in developing countries.

For this reason the political debate is essential and necessary. It is a debate that has been completely absent in parliament. How is it possible, for example, that there has not been a single political initiative on nuclear energy, despite the role it could play in solving this problem?

Despite the stakes, the debates are more about emotions than about reasons. See, without going any further, the ecological catastrophe, whose preachers are getting to the point of using children to mobilize the crowds. If we accept that this is a serious problem and one in which we are going into the future, I do not understand why it is intended that children are the only ones who can legitimately express themselves.

Another less subtle way to prevent debate is to throw the accusation of “climate sceptics” or “negationist” at anyone who questions political decisions. Certainly there are individuals like the president of the United States, Mr. Trump, who think climate change is a hoax created by China to destroy their country’s economy. During these past days I have received messages from people outraged for having invited Dr. Lomborg and calling him a climate sceptic. I can already tell you that he is not, so all those who have come here because they feel insulted and want to express their indignation, have come to the wrong place.

As I said, there is no point in questioning the facts. In my years as an MEP, I have found that the European Parliament generally has little respect for scientific opinion. Most politicians have not cared at all that European scientific agencies and from the rest of the world ensure that genetically modified organisms are completely safe, nor do they take any notice of the scientific guarantees offered by certain pesticides if for ideological reasons they have decided that they should be banned. That is why I am not pleased that so many defenders of science and reason suddenly appear. For this type of politician, science is an instrument they use when it is useful to them. And on the subject of climate change, it is good for many to describe as a negationist anyone who wants to discuss the different ways to tackle this problem. In order to promote this type of debate, I encouraged Euromind, and to that purpose I invited Dr. Lomborg to speak here.

And now I give the floor to my friend Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who was vice president of the European Parliament and is physicist himself, who will act as presenter and moderator of the event. No one better for such an event.