Bayer sees gloomy GM picture in Europe

23 Mar, 2016 01:00 AM
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Kemal Malik ... rejection of GM an emotional reaction.
Kemal Malik ... rejection of GM an emotional reaction.

BAYER board member Kemal Malik has painted a gloomy picture about the state of play in Europe for genetically modified (GM) cropping and the technology's future.

Mr Malik is responsible for innovation with a budget of 4 billion Euro per year (AU$5.9b) on research and development in the company's core business areas including human health and crop protection.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, he said Europe's consumer rejection of GM crops and foods was an emotional reaction that sharply contradicted scientific acceptance of proven medical and human health benefits of genetic modification.

Mr Malik said if the average person on the street was offered a cure for cancer, Haemophilia, cystic fibrosis or "whatever" by using a genetic tool that removed the faulty gene they'd say: 'Yes, sure where can I sign on?' but would reject GM food.

As an example of where Europe had lost the GM debate, "at such a visceral level", he referred to a recent survey in Germany where consumers said "no" when asked if they'd eat a biotech food product, despite admitting to not knowing what it was.

"I think we've lost the debate on GM crops in Europe," he said.

"I don't think there's enough political will to challenge the debate.

"I don't think the industry did the greatest job to be honest of taking the public and law makers with them in Europe.

"As an industry we were so convinced of the technology we thought it was obvious that it should be accepted by society (but) it hasn't been and I don't see that changing any time soon in Europe."

Mr Malik said Bayer wasn't as big on GM technology R&D as rival crop protection companies such as Monsanto or DuPont but was convinced the technology is safe and effective.

But he said powerful lobby groups had opposed the technology and fears were held these non-government organisations would try to sabotage newer technologies such as DNA editing.

"There are already signs from some of these groups that they want to bundle DNA editing into the same space as GM and say that it's wrong and that really would be a disaster," he said.

Mr Malik said German and European farmers were unhappy about being denied access to GM crops because they could see producers benefitting from the technology throughout the world.

He said he spoke about the associated challenges with GM crops and scientific acceptance to politicians at the EU parliament in Brussels last month.

A key message was that most of the science and research on GM technology was conducted in Europe, but other parts of the world are benefitting from its use.

Mr Malik said European legislation and treaties applied the precautionary principle that meant any harm should be avoided but an "innovation principle" was also needed to ensure Europe remained globally competitive.

He said he warned politicians in Brussels that Bayer's annual R&D budget of 4 billion Euros doesn't have to be spent in Europe.

"We can spend it anywhere in the world," he said.

"If Europe isn't a place where innovation is either respected or wants to be paid for - or is just not allowed - then there are other places in the world we can do it."

Mr Malik said the company didn't expect laws and regulations to be made by industry or scientists and they should be made by politicians because "that's how we can vote them in or out".

But he said politicians should also listen to the scientific viewpoint but this had not occurred enough in the GM debate, which was partly industry's fault.

"I think it is too easy for us as an industry to blame NGOs or whatever," he said.

"We didn't engage enough at explaining this and explaining what we thought was safe and science based (technology) and we've lost the debate."

But being able to import GM feed grains from the United States in times of short supply was a "paradox" underpinning the whole debate, he said.

"We import it and animals eat it and then we eat the animals - it's just totally illogical," he said.

"And I think sadly, I sense zero willingness to even entertain the (GM) debate in Europe and at some stage as an industry we need to self-reflect on how we've allowed it to get to this situation.

"Despite our size we were totally out-manoeuvred by these groups.

"I do blame them because they were very powerful - but we're not exactly without power and influence and we failed.

"If you look at the combined efforts of companies like Bayer, Dupont and Monsanto - we've just failed to get this debate right.

"We would be willing, if we had this technology, to use it in humans for DNA editing but then there are all these scare stories about using it in the food we eat."

Mr Malik said a GM product with human health benefits, such as Golden Rice which contained a Vitamin A supplement, was barred in Europe.

"You don't have a single GMO crop being grown in Europe for commercial benefit," he said.

But Mr Malik said he believed greater public acceptance would occur through future medical advances in genetic modification which would be viewed as more "remarkable" for curing certain diseases.

He said that would spark greater willingness to say "this isn't Frankenstein" and is "actually something that could be of benefit".

"It may be that when they (the public) see real cures coming in the medical space, people will say 'this actually isn't that bad'," he said.

"(But) if we don't get this right, as a society, we're going to suffer the consequences - people will suffer.

"There will be nine billion people in the world - there's seven billion now - in 30-40 years and we need to feed them."

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Bob Phelps
23/03/2016 4:01:07 PM, on Farm Weekly

GM is a useful research tool. Securely contained GM microbes also make insulin but, unlike GM food, are only used under expert medical supervision to treat individuals. Campaigns to make Europeans eat GM foods failed as governments & companies lost shopper confidence long ago. Officialdom denied infected meat could transmit Mad Cow Disease to humans & dallied over foot and mouth disease control. So risk averse Europeans demand GM-free canola for which Australian farmers earn a $50-70/tonne premium. New GM techniques known as 'genome-editing' must be strictly regulated too. We are not lab rats.
Roy Williams
23/03/2016 10:34:01 PM, on Farm Weekly

Bayer and every other corporation that is involved in agriculture has a moral duty to continue to support efforts to change the public conversation about food production, and share holders need to push management to make this a long term priority. The only thing between long term global food insufficiency and food insecurity are the efforts of biotechnology companies to continue to develop crops that require less water, can withstand more extreme temperatures, are more disease resistant, can be grown in a wider variety of soils, and are more nutritious than those today.
Frank
26/03/2016 6:06:33 PM, on Farm Weekly

Roy Williams is missing the point. As long as pathogens and other dangerous chemicals, like glyphosate, are used in this process, we don't want them contaminating our food sources which is what is happening now. I think he is also getting bit confused about the claims he makes for the efforts of the biotech companies who have been singularly unsuccessful at meeting these claims. GM is breeding resistant strains of the very bugs they wish to eradicate and affecting the crops and seed production of those wishing to maintain natural supplies. Hybridization is natural & better option than GM.
Deregul8
29/03/2016 7:27:45 AM, on Farm Weekly

Rattle the can a bit more Phelps. You and your fellow fund raisers only see a cause that needs muckraking to generate you some 'charitable' income. Folk are waking up to charities and charitable causes. Keep your money in your pocket folks. You are going to need it in the future because we have a financial depression looming. 1930s all over again

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