Scandinavia is not only unique when it comes to climate, temperature and day length, but also due to its specific regulations on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Crop varieties, adapted to the region, have been developed both within government-funded programmes and by smaller breeding companies.
Unfortunately, the current global trend, with just a few large multinational companies, is resulting in a concentration of plant breeding to a few crop varieties developed for large markets. This poses a challenge for the development of crops well adapted to the unique climate of Scandinavia. In a recent paper, plant researchers from Scandinavian universities state that public investments in crop breeding for this region is of outmost importance for us to achieve a sustainable agriculture with reduced negative environmental impact, such as reducing the use of pesticides and an efficient use of fertilizers.
Another challenge is the climate change with a prolonged growth season and a changed precipitation pattern, which will lead to increased pressure from insect pests, plant pathogens, and other stresses on crops. These problems can only be solved by development of crop varieties adapted to the specific conditions in each region. Plant breeding is a slow process where gene technologies can help us to meet these challenges more quickly.
Europe is often seen as uniformly politically restrictive of gene technology. In reality, however, the variation is high between the countries. Between 2004 and 2014, Finland and Sweden voted according to the scientific recommendations when the EU would decide whether or not new GM plants would be approved, while Denmark voted against in 40 percent of the cases.
– However, in January 2017, we could note a change in Sweden's tradition of following the EFSA recommendations when Sweden voted against approval for cultivation of two maize varieties that are herbicide tolerant and resistant against an insect pest, says Dennis Eriksson, researcher in the Mistra Biotech programme at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and lead author of the article. The argument was that cultivation of these two varieties would conflict with the Swedish environmental objective of a non-toxic environment as the use of the herbicide glufosinate, which is prohibited in Sweden, could increase in the EU as a result of the approval.
In Scandinavia, Denmark is the only EU member state implementing Directive (EU) 2015/412, which allows a national ban on the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops approved in the EU. The fact that other countries in Scandinavia do not invoke this is not surprising, as the approved maize varieties are not relevant for cultivation in northern Europe.
– It will be interesting to see how other Scandinavian countries will act on the directive when other GM varieties reach the European market. It is clear that the Scandinavian countries, primarily Finland and Sweden, represent an innovation-friendly and scientifically motivated attitude towards plant gene technology, compared to some other European countries, says Dennis Eriksson.
The public in Scandinavia, with the exception of Norway, is slightly less negative towards GMO compared to the rest of Europe. Although it is difficult to determine whether it is the national policy that reflects on the opinion, or the other way around, there seems to be no conflict between the two, the authors say.
– The relatively small markets in Scandinavia are a limiting factor for private investment in regionally adapted plant breeding. In addition to the importance of significant long-term government investment, it is also important to discuss the role of innovative solutions in plant breeding and research, and how these should be regulated, says Dennis Eriksson.
All of the Scandinavian countries are well positioned within the overall strategy to develop sustainable bioeconomies in Europe, and most of them have also adopted a national strategy for bioeconomy. The authors point out that a strategy is nothing without a clear implementation plan, and that plant biotechnology can be an important tool in the implementation of sustainability strategies.
Eriksson, D., Brinch-Pedersen, H. Chawade, A,. Holme, I.B., Hvoslef-Eide, T.A.K., Ritala, A., Teeri, T., & Thorstensen, T. 2017. Scandinavian perspectives on plant gene technology: applications, policies and progress. Physiologia Plantarum doi:10.1111/ppl.12661
The industry of agrobiotechnology is a relatively young industry dominated by multinational companies. The regulations surrounding the use of biotechnology to develop genetically modified crops have made it very hard for small or medium sized companies to compete in this industry due to high regulatory costs.
The first part thesis describes the regulatory system for commercialization of GMOs in the EU and also presents estimations of the costs experienced by a company from this system. The second part of this thesis describes how biotechnology is used in plant breeding programs, using potato breeding as a specific example.
With the help of researchers from Mistra Biotech, a new process for developing plant varieties using site-directed mutagenesis has been economically evaluated using a cost/benefit analysis. The results of this case study shows that site-directed mutagenesis using TALEN has the potential of greatly reducing the time and cost of conventional breeding programs.
Benefits arise from the shortening of the breeding program which translates into higher net present values of released varieties and also on the ability of producing new varieties faster. The competitive advantage of adopting new biotechnical methods can be reduced developing cost, a more dynamic and faster developing process and a way of circumventing the GMO regulations. This could have different impacts on the industry since it could allow smaller companies to compete with multinational agrochemical companies. It could however also lead to a regained interest from the multinational companies in the European market which would force European companies to compete with much larger companies.
Olsson, S. 2013. The competitive effects of adopting modern biotechnical methods in plant breeding programs. KTH
Perceptions about gene technology in the Swedish food supply chain
Based on policy documents and semi-structured interviews with representatives of five organizations active in producing, processing, and retailing food in Sweden, Edvardsson Björnberg and colleagues investigated how those key actors in the Swedish food supply chain perceive the concept of agricultural sustainability and the role of biotechnology in creating more sustainable agricultural production systems.
Biotechnology can affect the sustainability of agricultural production systems depending on how the concept of agricultural sustainability is put into practice. According to some researchers, biotechnology, including transgenic varieties, could make the world’s agricultural production systems less sustainable from an environmental point of view through, for example, gene spread or increased invasiveness. It could also make the world’s agricultural production systems socially less sustainable if the regulatory system that develops in parallel with the introduction of GM varieties prevents socioeconomic development among certain segments of the population. However, biotechnology could also contribute to making our agricultural production systems more sustainable, for example, by making nutrient use more efficient or by reducing the land area needed for agriculture. These are important aspects because competition over natural resources, including land, is increasing due to population growth and changes in climate. Arguably, there is nothing inherently or manifestly unsustainable about biotechnology. As pointed out by some of the informants in this study, it all boils down to particular applications and the environmental, social, and economic risks that those applications involve. There is growing scientific evidence that, if put to use wisely, biotechnology can indeed yield significant environmental benefits.
The lack of precise action-guidance provided by the concept of agricultural sustainability, especially in relation to the use of biotechnology, does not mean that the concept has no policy relevance. However, it does make the concept vulnerable to “hijacking” by actors who have an interest in manipulating the concept to correspond to their own political agendas. How the concept is put into practice and which sustainability discourse is prevalent at a particular point in time is largely the result of a struggle between different actors. The actors who are strong in the debate also have the opportunity to make their particular sustainability discourse the dominant one in planning, decision-making, and public debate.
The study revealed the influence of external actors on the policy process and the resulting conceptualization of the sustainability concept. In Sweden, the current dominant discourse says that biotechnology is not part of sustainable agriculture, at least not when it comes to food for human consumption. This is clear from the policies of the organizations participating in this study. Although a majority of the interviewed organizations claim to have a positive attitude toward new technologies in general and admit that genetically engineered crop traits ought to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, they categorically reject adding food products containing GM varieties to their assortments. Thus, the perceived role of biotechnology in creating sustainable agricultural production systems is somewhat ambiguous. Our interview data suggest that the prevalent agricultural sustainability discourse has been largely shaped by consumer attitudes and pressure from strong environmental organizations.
The sensitivity of anti-GM campaigns generally increases as one moves further down in the food supply chain from production to retailing. Among the organizations that participated in our study, LRF appeared to be the least sensitive and the food retailers the most sensitive to anti-GM campaigns. This might be because of organizations’ susceptibility to changes in consumer behaviour (choice). Consumer behaviour can change easily and rapidly, sometimes overnight, as a result of political campaigns and media coverage. Although they affect all actors in the food supply chain, these changes in consumer behaviour have a much more direct impact on food retailers than on an organization like the LRF.
Edvardsson Björnberg, K., Marstorp, H., Jonas, E., & Tidåker, P. 2015. The role of biotechnology in sustainable agriculture: views and perceptions among key actors in the Swedish food supply chain. Sustainability 7(6): 7512-7529