Toespraak van minister Van Nieuwenhuizen bij opening COGEM Symposium in Den Haag.

Toespraak van minister Van Nieuwenhuizen op 10 oktober 2019 bij de opening van het COGEM Symposium in Den Haag. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

After the Second World War, between 1948 and 1955, more than half a million Dutch people emigrated to ‘the New World’, to a new future. To Canada and Australia. The United States and New Zealand.

Why did they leave? Why did they make that choice? Because after 5 years of war and occupation, that new world looked invitingly rich and full of opportunities.

Another reason, according to Dutch economist Frank Kalshoven, was the baby boom just after the war. Many people believed that a small country like the Netherlands, with a limited amount of agricultural land, would never be able to feed so many mouths. They took it as a given that the yield of a hectare of land would always stay the same.

They were wrong.

History shows that they left on the eve of the longest period of economic growth in Dutch history. Economic growth that was largely due to rising yields in agriculture. They hadn’t taken into account the innovative power of the agricultural industry. Innovations that combined plant breeding with intensive cultivation methods. Innovations that made plants more resistant to diseases and more tailored to human needs and preferences.
Innovations that gave us sweet Brussels sprouts, pink grapefruit and orange carrots. The whole year round…

Innovations that can help us to grow sufficient food in the future, even for an ever growing population.

But innovations have to be safe. Especially those that affect our food, our health and our environment. That is where my ministry comes in: the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management is responsible for assessing risks to human beings and the environment arising from gene-edited crops.

That’s a challenging task. Because every year about one thousand new plant varieties are registered in the Netherlands. Even today, while we’re at this symposium, 2 or 3 new plants will enter the Dutch market.

How do we assess the safety of all those new plants and varieties? By making sure that our legislation is up to date and future-proof. And by making sure that our decision-making process is efficient and fair.

As the COGEM has reported several times, current European legislation for genetically modified crops is not ready for the future. This is clear from a judgment by the European Court of Justice of 25 July 2018. The Court ruled that new breeding techniques will not be exempted from the GMO legislation, but classical mutagenesis will be. That is strange. As I understand it, classical mutagenesis is a scattershot approach, while new breeding techniques like CRISPR-Cas are extremely precise.

This ruling isn’t good for innovative plant producers…

Of course, we have to comply with European law, so we have no choice but to adhere to the Court’s judgment. But that doesn’t mean that we – the Dutch government – will sit on our hands.

As my colleague Carola Schouten, the Minister of Agriculture, has already said: we will make a strong case in Europe for putting GMO legislation back on the agenda. As the new European Commission is being installed, we are looking forward to new opportunities and new possibilities. We know that Europe has taken note of Dutch lobbying efforts, and we are hopeful that we’ll be able to change the GMO legislation that is impeding safe innovation.

But we all know that process will take time. So we have to talk about what we can do within the boundaries of the current legislation, and how we can improve the decision-making process.

For the past 2 years my ministry has taken the lead in organising an open discussion among green biotechnology stakeholders. Because we need to work together to modernise legislation and explore new options for safe innovation.

Meanwhile, the COGEM and the National Institute for Health and the Environment have reported on innovations that are on the horizon. What exciting new products can we expect?

The great painter Vincent van Gogh immortalised the Dutch as potato eaters in a famous painting, so it’s hardly surprising that a Dutch institution – Wageningen University and Research – is developing a blight-resistant potato. There’s also interesting news from the United States: I heard that they’ve developed apples that contain caffeine. Starbucks beware! I’m sure there are people who would love to trade their morning coffee for a juicy apple!  

But that will take time. Because like all new genetically modified products, those apples need to be tested, registered and regulated before they can be brought to market in the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. And it is very important for consumers and government officials to be able to tell the difference between GMO apples and ‘natural’ apples. As if there is such a thing after centuries of conventional breeding…

But safety demands it. We need to be able to see what crops have been modified. We have to be able to ban non-registered GMOs from the Dutch market. And we have to be able to trace GMOs. But how?

1 solution is that instead of regulating the modification process, we need to switch to a regulatory system that is more product-based. Then we would only have to look at the new traits of a plant, regardless of how they were introduced, and assess whether these new traits are safe for humans and the environment.

Canada has already introduced this system, and I know COGEM has researched and compared European process-based regulation with Canadian product-based regulation. I’m very interested in the results, but I understand there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

We need to be prepared for the future and look at new possibilities. Rest assured that the Netherlands is currently taking major steps to simplify and shorten national GMO licensing procedures. I have confidence in our policy to change things for the better, and to improve the Dutch business climate for innovative biotechnology companies.

We need to be able to assess risks for humans and the environment, without holding back the tide of innovation. Because it is innovation – safe innovation – that enabled us to feed our growing population after the war. It is innovation that will help us keep doing so in the future.

And that’s what this symposium is about: our future!

Thank you.