The seed revolution is underway
Seed companies promise sweeter strawberries, drought-resistant cabbages and healthier tomatoes in less time and at lower cost thanks to genome-editing technology. There is a catch, however: in some cases, the rules are so lax that we may never know our food has been genome-edited.
This content was published on January 31, 2022 – 16:00
On the north coast of the Netherlands, around 30 companies are working in fields and greenhouses to develop the next biggest thing in vegetables. The area is called Seed Valley. It is the heart of European market gardening, just as Silicon Valley is the center of IT and software innovation. During a Syngenta media release last fall, the rows of vegetables made me think of a Disneyland park before all the guests arrived — pristine, bright, and trimmed to perfection — almost imaginary.
All the vegetables here are grown using conventional methods, which Syngenta says are very scientific and can take years, sometimes decades, to bear fruit (literally). We are not talking about genome editing or CRISPR in these fields because it is not authorized in Europe. But several thousand miles in either direction — to the United States and China — seed companies like Syngenta are starting to show off their latest CRISPR creations.
This is the fragmented regulatory world we live in now, but it is changing rapidly. More and more governments are opening their doors to genome editing with tools like CRISPR. Covid vaccine nationalism has left its mark – countries grapple with FOBLB – the Fhear OF Bing Lleft Behind – while other countries are pouring money into genome-edited seed research. Everyone wants an invention they can call their own.
Governments don’t just allow genome editing in food, they don’t regulate it at all in some cases. This means there are no strict safety checks, no labeling, and no transparency that our foods have been genome-edited. Some seed companies claim that genome editing simply speeds up something that could occur in nature, so why should it be treated any differently. Critics argue otherwise.
What do you think? I created a debateExternal link to interact with readers on the subject. Curious to hear your thoughts. [email protected]
What else caught my eye?
Nestlé will pay African cocoa farmers to keep children in school. Some 10,000 Ivorian farmers will earn extra money if they follow a set of guidelines established by Nestlé, including refraining from child labor by enrolling all children in school and increasing the productivity of their plantations by cocoa through best practices. The company plans to expand the program to 160,000 cocoa farmers by 2030 and introduce a new line of products under the program. This is perhaps the greatest hope for a child labor free chocolate bar from a large multinational.
Switzerland is keeping its options open to compensate for the losses resulting from the agreement on the minimum corporate tax. After relying for so long on low tax rates as a calling card with big business, the country is trying to figure out what else it can do to stay attractive in the face of the global minimum tax rate. Should the country ease immigration restrictions? Should there be less regulation? Or more regulation on dirty industries? Should the government fund business searchExternal link and promising start-ups? All options are on the table. One idea floated is to reduce the tax burden on wealthy executives to keep them and their businesses in the country. This idea is unlikely to go down well with the public when cries of tax hikes from billionaires, even from a few billionaires themselvesExternal link, become increasingly noisy.
Big food has a big problem with nutrition. According to an investigation by Swiss public television, RTS, the food industry lobby is pushing back against regulations aimed at curbing obesity rates are skyrocketingExternal link In some countries. RTS uncovered an email exchange from Swiss food giant Nestlé calling on the Swiss government to reject a new nutrition labeling law in Mexico. The company told RTS it supports the aim of the law but believes it has no scientific basis and will restrict consumer choice.
Mergers and acquisitions exploded last year. Low interest rates and excess liquidity in Swiss companies have tripledExternal link in the value of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), reaching 170 billion francs (186 billion dollars) last year. The pharmaceuticals and life sciences sectors saw M&A activity grow from 6 billion francs in 2020 to 56 billion francs last year, comprising four of the ten largest corporate deals. More biotech deals are expected this year and many are wondering how Novartis plans to spend the 19 billion francs from the sale of Roche’s stake. In an interview with Finanz & Wirtschaft, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan indicated that there could be small purchasesExternal link on my way.
Switzerland stumbles in the latest corruption ranking. Transparency International ranked Switzerland 7th, down four places from last year, in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index. A series of scandals last year did not help. The Swiss public sector is particularly vulnerable to nepotism, says the NGO. It’s “a small country, we know each other, we went to school together… that often involves conflicts of interest”. But there are bigger issues that are not covered by the Index, says NGO director Martin Hilti. Specifically, money laundering and the entire “enabling industry” including lawyers, notaries and estate agents.
Thanks for reading.