Gene technology: Opportunities or threats?

Managing Director Henk Bles sets forth his views about the future of Bles Dairies. In this article his vision on gene technology.

Is gene technology posing an opportunity or a threat? Let me explain why I think it is an absolute opportunity and why we cannot survive without this technology.

Europe and specifically The Netherlands are the front-runners in agricultural technology, technology that we successfully built up during centuries. As a result, we are able to export breeding materials and products with a high quality added value and to share our knowledge around the world.

Through research, development and innovations we constantly find new solutions for more efficient and sustainable production processes. It is a fact that our growing population occupies more land and puts an increasing pressure on our environment. Moreover, it is an enormous challenge to produce enough and healthy food for this population.

We should realize that with the actual agricultural practices and technology we are not able to feed the world in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Gene editing and engineering technologies enable selecting the exact characteristics we want and to cross species’ barriers, making it a powerful tool to:

1. Improve agricultural yields
2. Improve nutritional value
3. Reduce application of pesticides

This revolution in technology is not without concerns about the ethical values. One of the main points of controversy surrounding the release of genetically modified organisms is the question of labelling food products. Supporters of labelling also point to the principle of the consumer’s right to know what is in their food. Opponents point out that we do not know exactly what is in our food at the moment anyway. In addition, worries exist about antibiotic resistance, unknown effects of the inserted genes.

All very acceptable concerns and so, as with all new technologies, we must ensure that we proceed carefully. Regulatory bodies should safeguard careful introduction, testing and regulation.

However, to be ready for the future entailing so many challenges related to climate, food safety and food security, we need to constantly develop our very specific knowledge. Not applying these new technologies does not justify the world population’s needs that cannot be neglected.

Further to that, it has to be acknowledged that China and the USA for instance have regulations in place that allow further development of this gene technology and do proceed. This will certainly give them an advantage in the position towards Europe. With this revolution in technology, all the knowledge Europe built up during 100 years can be demolished in 10 years. In addition, the specific knowledge in gene technology developed in Wageningen University. It can become a serious concern when no regulations come into force allowing Europe to also continue these developments. Our leaders in the EU should be aware of this in order to have EU and especially The Netherlands to stay the frontrunner in agricultural technology.