The European Union (EU) proudly proclaims itself a leader in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to offset climate change. But the EU’s actions, at least those in the agriculture sector, don’t quite match its rhetoric.

Europe’s steadfast refusal to allow European farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) crops, and the subsequent reduced productivity, is adding 33 million metric tons of GHG to the atmosphere each year, new research shows. 

That total is equivalent to 7.5% of GHG emissions from the entire European agricultural sector, or roughly what might be emitted each year by 10 to 20 coal-fired power stations, researchers in the United States and Germany found.

The new analysis is likely uncomfortable reading for European environmental activists, notes environmental writer Mark Lynas. 

“It implies that their opposition to genetic engineering might be substantially worsening the climate emergency,” Lynas said recently in an article for Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, where he is a visiting fellow.

More food, less land

The findings, from researchers at the Breakthrough Institute in California and the University of Gottingen in Germany, highlight the role that genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops play in helping farmers in the Western Hemisphere produce higher yields on less land. 

The researchers made the calculation by estimating to what extent GHG emissions could have been avoided if the EU’s level of adoption of GM varieties of five major crops (maize, soybean, cotton, canola and sugar beet) in 2017 had been equal to that of the United States.

With Europe’s farmers forced to avoid genetically modified crops that can boost yields, more farmland is required for crop production, the researchers found. That leaves less land available for forests, wetlands and grassland, which all help to sequester carbon and reduce GHG emissions.

The GM crops also help farmers reduce pesticide applications to control weeds and insects.

Increased productivity is key to how America’s farmers are leading the way in reducing GHG emissions and sequestering carbon, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, recently told a congressional panel on exploring climate change solutions.

The technology forefront

“U.S. farmers and ranchers have long been at the forefront of climate-smart farming, utilizing scientific solutions, technology and innovations to raise crops and care for livestock,” Duvall told the lawmakers. “These ef­forts are designed to protect soil and water, efficiently manage manure, produce clean and renewable energy, capture carbon, and improve sustainability.”

As genetic technology improves, the productivity gap between farmers in Europe and those in North and South America is likely to widen in the coming years, Lynas said. That means that additional carbon emitted due to the EU’s opposition to genetic engineering will likely grow, he said.

In addition, Lynas said, the research doesn’t look at GHG emissions from farming in Africa and Asia. Farmers on those continents have been slow to adopt biotech crops for fear of being shut out of the European markets, he said.