The EU is taking a foolish stance on food technology

Chris Bullivant

November 18, 2019

Technology has improved many areas of life. Imagine washing laundry the “natural” way. We would be polluting streams by dunking our primitive clothing in rivers, scrubbing them with nettles, and spending hours bashing our wool, furs and hessian sack on rocks.

Imagine, then, eight million Londoners traipsing to the Thames to do this every morning – huge environmental degradation. Improvement in laundry allows us to have better clothes that last longer, with washing machines that are increasingly efficient and environmentally friendly.

Take our food. We have moved on from roots, foraged fruits and seed to develop basic crops through generations of breeding which have improved our diets. Almost everything we eat, except most seafood, berries and mushrooms, has been engineered by humans. Kale, broccoli and cabbage, for example, were bred by humans from one original plant.

Yet the EU draws a line at the use of modern technology when it comes to innovation in plant science. The EU continually opts out of using technology to improve farming, which blocks people from buying demonstrably healthier foods – and products that are better for the environment.

It would be like the EU insisting that we use a washing machine developed in the 1950s and refusing to adapt to new ones, even though engineers insist a new washing machine is more environmentally friendly. To the EU, the old washing machine feels more “natural”.

With food, new technologies such as gene editing could allow for an influx of new products that would reduce the environmental impact of farming.

The push to reduce the consumption of meat is pushing a rise in eating fish. Global demand for fish is, however, putting enormous pressure on ocean food chains.

On top of that, farmed fish in the EU are forced to eat small fish that supply numerous other ocean eco-systems because the EU-approved feed for farmed fish lacks the right type of omega-3 needed for healthy produce.

But bio-engineers have now created an omega-3 canola (rapeseed) suitable for feeding farmed fish. The product has been approved in the US but is effectively banned within the EU because lobbyists would rather we stick with the old washing machine.

One of the largest factors in feeding huge populations is reducing food waste. Food waste is considerable even before it arrives in our supermarkets and fridges.

But even at the consumer end, food waste can be significant. US consumers throw out about 150,000 tons of food each day, according to the US department of agriculture. That equates to about 26 per cent of food wasted by Americans from 2007 to 2014, as well as wasting the use of 30 million acres of farmland used to produce it.

For example, 35 per cent of fresh potatoes valued at $1.7bn are thrown out because of bruising and browning, according to the Journal for Consumer Affairs.

Yet products are already available in the US that have less browning. The Arctic Apple doesn’t brown when cut and exposed to air. There are mushrooms that don’t brown while potatoes, strawberries and avocados can all be improved through Crispr technology to better cope with transport, storage and shelf life.

Regulators and lobbyists want to stick with the older technology, feeling it to be more natural – even though organic products like pink grapefruit were developed by exposing seeds to radiation in a process called mutagenesis in 1929.

It would be the same as the EU regulator preferring his pale yellow washing machine at 60 degrees and fifty gallons of water with bleach because it was more natural feeling. It is simply a prejudice for nostalgia.

This is a shame, because new technology can be used to improve food products to tackle public health challenges too. Gluten-free wheat is being developed to help people suffering from celiac disease.

A non-allergenic peanut that could save lives is in development. A new oil from modified soybeans has fewer heart-threatening fats, higher oleic acid levels and, when used in cooking, produces fewer trans fatty acids.

And then Golden Rice is vitamin-A enriched rice which could ensure that a dietary staple for the most populated part of the world, South East Asia, is nutritious enough to spare blindness and death for hundreds of thousands of children each year.

But all of these health benefits are resisted by those who can’t cope with technological innovation, even though the vitamin-A rich keratin that puts the orange in modern carrots (and gives Golden Rice its distinctive colour) started out as a yellow root vegetable until the Dutch bred them orange to celebrate their royal family.

In short, EU regulators simply cave in to lobbyists who are happy with 17th-century technology yet freak out at 21st-century innovation.

Outside of the EU, the UK can become a beacon of innovation and development in food technologies that will reduce food waste, provide healthier foods, and reduce the environmental impact on producing the levels of food required to feed a growing global population.

That’s why Boris Johnson’s first speech as prime minister was so welcome: it committed the UK to be a leader in new technologies that will feed the planet in a more environmentally friendly way.


  • Chris Bullivant

    Chris Bullivant is a freelance writer who has led think tanks in Westminster and worked in international development in K Street, Washington DC.

Written by Chris Bullivant

Chris Bullivant is a freelance writer who has led think tanks in Westminster and worked in international development in K Street, Washington DC.


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