Why Europe must accept new breeding techniques
Jeffrey A. Cole is a microbial physiologist who has devoted a part of his professional career to the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB), since January 2021 as its President. He considers the application of biotechnology to be crucial for securing sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.
Could you please briefly introduce the EFB?
The EFB is Europe’s non-profit federation of National Biotechnology Associations, Learned Societies, Universities, Scientific Institutes, Biotech Companies and individual biotechnologists. Our primary task is to promote biotechnology throughout Europe and beyond. As an independent “Voice of Biotechnology in Europe”, EFB promotes the safe, sustainable and beneficial use of fundamental research and innovation in life sciences, while providing a forum for interdisciplinary and international cooperation. Key member activities focus on plant, food, agriculture and environmental biotechnology on the green side, and biopharmaceuticals, healthcare, pathogenicity and antibiotic resistance on the red. Physiology and genomics of microorganisms impact many aspects of biotechnology, while white topics include biomaterials, bioengineering, and both systems and synthetic biology.
What are the major challenges it is currently addressing?
Major challenges facing the EFB include (i) persuading Europe, not least the European Commission, to base its regulations on scientific evidence rather than prejudice; (ii) persuading the public that technology provides the means to achieve sustainable, regenerative food production that are 100% consistent with aims of the Green and Organic movements and to mitigate loss of biodiversity due to climate change; and (iii) to close the culture gap between academic research and bioprocessing applications. Adequate funding is essential for the EFB to achieve our aim to be an independent voice for biotechnology and to take new initiatives. The federation relies heavily on three major income streams: institutional membership and Regional Branch Office (RBO) contributions; royalty income from our two journals, New Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy Journal; and income generated by providing administrative support for Divisions organising scientific meetings.
Scientists from CRH, now CATRIN, have been working with EFB for a long time. Ivo Frébort is the Vice-President of the Federation. How do you feel about this cooperation? Is it unique in the Czech Republic?
At one point the EFB was supported to various degrees by 14 national societies that became our RBOs. RBOs in Poland, France and the UK remain active members of the EFB, but cooperation is strongest with RBOs in Spain, France and the Czech Republic. CR Hana, now CATRIN, plays a key role in the growing success of the EFB. Professor Ivo Frébort is one of our Vice-Presidents and Michaela Holecová is a member of the EFB Executive Board. Since the formation of CATRIN, the RBO has become the home of the EFB Plant, Agriculture and Food Division with a gradually increasing range of activities. Examples of new initiatives include a “Healthy soil“ meeting to be held in September 2023 in Muttenzi, and seminal contributions to the debate about Europe’s use of new genetic technologies for the benefit of Society.
Where do you see further possibilities for the development of cooperation and deepening of contacts?
Across Europe, academic microbiologists, chemists and physicists are supported by strong national and international organisations such as the Microbiology Society, FEMS, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is surprising that no obvious parallel European organisation serves the similar needs of plant physiologists and geneticists. This gap in provision makes collaboration between academia and industry more difficult and in part explains why Europe lags behind its competitors in the USA and China to embrace new technologies. The EFB is not a national society, but an international Federation dedicated to developing international collaborations across both scientific disciplines and between research and its industrial application. The Czech RBO based in Olomouc offers massive scope to increase these collaborations, especially through the organisation of scientific meetings and the production of evidence-based position papers to guide future European legislation.
One of the visible outcomes of the cooperation is the biennial G4G conference. The last one took place this year. How did you think the conference went?
The G-4-G meetings always include ground-breaking science from top groups across the world, and the 2022 meeting was no exception. Participants were especially appreciative of the enhanced opportunities to build new collaborations. The introduction of flash poster presentations was undoubtedly an appreciated innovation. Covid has massively depleted participation in all scientific meetings, many of which have been cancelled by other organisations. The G-4-G-6 meeting in 2022 was no exception, attracting only half of the number of paying registrants compared with the previous meeting. Nevertheless, strong financial support recruited by Ivo Frébort and his team by various sponsors enabled income to slightly exceed meeting costs.
One important issue for the EFB is changes in European legislation concerning modern methods of plant genome editing. Why are you calling for these changes and do you think they are in sight?
There are many reasons why Europe needs to embrace new plant genetic technologies (NGT). Global warming presents the greatest current threat to civilisation, especially by jeopardising food security. The following examples are just a few of the many ways that NGT can help reverse global warming and its consequences for feeding the World. Significant amounts of carbon dioxide are produced by transporting food across Europe and even across the World. Beans, asparagus and soft fruits are imported by air from Asia, South America and Africa either because they are out of season in Europe, or because our climates are incompatible with their local production. Technology offers ways to produce more crops locally either in the field or in contained environments. Local food production is the friend of the Green movement, not its enemy. The same argument applies to organic farming, which without application of NGT cannot meet the increased food production required to feed a world of 10 billion people. Drought is a major threat to food production: as already demonstrated by new strains of cereals developed by CRH, NGT can provide drought-resistant plant strains that are safe to eat and do not present a threat to the environment. While current regulations in Europe prevent us from reaping the benefits of these plant strains, other nations with greater foresight are attracting large scale food production using plant varieties developed by NGT and then exporting the products long distances to meet the demand in Europe. Not only does this short-sighted European policy exacerbate global warming: it also exports employment from Europe to other continents. Sadly much of Europe remains opposed to the use of scientifically based development of new plant varieties. The battle to persuade the general public to abandon prejudice and fake news is still no closer to success.
Prof. Jeffrey A. Cole, Ph.D., (* 1942)
Professor Cole is a microbial physiologist. He is a Professor Emeritus at University of Birmingham and since 2021 has been the President of European Federation of Biotechnology. In addition, he is a member of CATRIN´s Scientific Board. His research has focused on how bacteria adapt to oxygen starvation or excess with >150 papers on bacterial nitrate and nitrite reduction. Recently he has focused on how enteric bacteria protect themselves against nitric oxide generated either byother bacteria, or as a protection mechanism of their mammalian hosts. He currently collaborates with Dr. Amanda Rossiter on projects investigating how bacteria survive the human immune response and their roles in gastric cancer.
January 23, 2023