Welcome to our latest Review, which focuses on the European Commission’s proposal to scrap safeguards around new GMOs and summarises the critical reactions of environmental, consumer and farmers’ groups, governments, ministers, and scientists. All of them condemn the Commission’s proposed move to deregulation.
A word about language. In Commission- and industry-speak there are no new GMOs, only the products of “new genomic techniques” (NGTs). This attempt at distinction is, of course, a nonsense as GMOs old and new are all the products of genetic engineering and the newer gene-edited ones involve similar, or even more serious, risks and concerns – see the analyses and reactions of scientists that we’ve summarised towards the end of the Review.
EU COMMISSION’S GMO DEREGULATION PROPOSAL LANDS AMID FURY
On 5 July the European Commission released its proposal to deregulate new GMOs (NGTs). That means abolishing risk assessment, traceability requirements, GMO labelling, monitoring, and liability if something goes wrong. Cultivation opt-outs for countries that don’t want to grow GMOs approved at the EU level would also be scrapped, as would the current requirement for GMO developers to provide detection methods that allow traceability of the GMO throughout the food chain.
As the French research group Inf'OGM pointed out, the Commission's move is essentially about changing the definition of a GMO so that "most current GMOs will no longer be considered as such... the European Commission’s ambition is to have virtually no plants defined as GMOs in Europe in the decades to come (and therefore subject to risk assessment, authorisation, labelling and traceability)."
The Commission’s proposal was widely condemned by civil society groups, industry associations, certain politicians, and scientific organisations. However, it remains to be seen if this broad-based opposition will be enough to defeat the proposal in the face of GMO industry lobbying power and some politicians’ naive faith in industry promises.
Commenting on the proposal, Mute Schimpf of Friends of the Earth Europe said: “The European Commission is choosing to give in to a long-lasting campaign from big corporations instead of protecting citizens’ rights. It’s appalling to see that the Commission basically says agribusiness do not need to bear the risks of releasing untested new GMOs into our fields and plates, but consumers, farmers and nature do.”
Greenpeace said the proposal “disregards safety and consumer rights”. Greenpeace EU’s GMO campaigner Eva Corral said: “Whether it’s a toy or a face cream, any product on the market needs to be safety tested – why would there be an exemption for GMOs that end up on our fields or in our plates? Biotech companies have long considered these safety procedures an unnecessary bother and it’s disappointing to see the Commission agree with them.”
“Spectacular submission to the biotech industry”
Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) called the Commission’s proposal a “spectacular submission to the biotech industry” and pointed out that “Consumers will not know if they are eating new GMOs, that are in addition untested.” The group added, “New GMOs are not allowed in organic farming, but no measures are foreseen to allow GM-free and organic farmers and breeders to keep their fields GMO-free.”
CEO said corporations already dominating the patent pool on these technologies, like Corteva, Bayer and BASF, will be able to enter the EU market with unlabelled and untraceable – but patented – GMOs, which will further increase their control over farmers and food production in Europe.
The problem of patents on seeds was also emphasised by the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International, which said deregulation would threaten farmers’ rights to seeds as well as the work of small and medium-sized breeders, and reduce seed diversity: “Contrary to conventional plant breeding, both the processes and the products of NGTs are patentable under the EU law. Exempting new GM seeds from EU’s GMO regulations would therefore result in a flood of patented seeds on the market. For most farmers and breeders navigating through this ‘patent thicket’ will be a major challenge while increasing the monopoly of the seed industry.”
Friends of the Earth Europe called on Europe’s environment and consumer ministers, as well as members of the European Parliament, to reject the Commission’s proposal. Both the EU Council and the EU Parliament will have a say on the final law in the coming months.
German, Austrian ministers say proposal is unacceptable
Officials from some member state governments also came out against the proposal. German environment minister Steffi Lemke issued a statement saying, “The interests of consumers must be safeguarded. They have the right to know what they are buying and what they are consuming – and they must also be able to recognise this on the food shelf in the supermarket. This is why compulsory labelling of genetically modified plants and products made from them is crucial, because it is the only way to give people freedom of choice when buying food. In its current form, the EU Commission’s proposal makes it possible for large quantities of genetically modified plants to be brought into the fields and ultimately into the supermarkets without prior risk assessment and labelling for consumers. I think that is wrong.”
Austrian government ministers called the Commission’s proposal “unacceptable”. The environment and agriculture ministers said Austria has positioned itself as “a pioneer in organic and non-GMO agriculture” and that the government wants strict regulations for new GMOs, adding, “The Commission’s proposal is a danger for the Austrian way of agriculture, and also takes away consumers’ freedom of choice. We will not allow that, so we will do everything we can in Brussels to that strict rules for genetically modified plants and food will continue to apply.”
Hungary, Slovakia continue to stand up for GMO-free agriculture
The Hungarian government voiced its strong opposition to the Commission’s proposal, saying, “We do not support any initiative that would allow these [new GM] products to be placed on the market in the European Union without a proper health and environmental risk assessment... Our primary concern is to strengthen and maintain food supply and food safety and to protect the interests of traditional, especially organic, farmers. For this reason, guarantees must be included in the regulation to ensure that NGT products are properly labelled, monitored and excluded from organic farming. Similarly, consumer freedom of choice can only be guaranteed if compulsory labelling is maintained, which is why we must not allow products created using new genetic engineering techniques to be placed on the market without any prior testing and authorisation.”
According to a media report, Slovakia is also against the exemption of new GMOsfrom the GMO regulations, citing public rejection of the technology in food and farming.
Meanwhile the MEP Anja Hazekamp warns that in making the deregulation proposal, Commissioner for the Green Deal Frans Timmermans is “shooting himself in the foot”, since while the Green Deal seeks to reduce pesticide use, the developers of GM crops are also pesticide producers. In an article called “Allowing genetically engineered crops is the deathblow to sustainable agriculture”, Ms Hazekamp recounts the failed promises of the first generation of GM crops and says none of the promises made for the second generation are substantiated, either scientifically or in practice. She demands that the precautionary principle is upheld, risk assessments continue to be performed, and transparency and freedom of choice is preserved for farmers, processors, and consumers.
Proposal could mean end of GMO-free plant breeding, organic bodies warn
Organic seed producers warned that the Commission’s proposal could mark the end of GMO-free breeding and seed production. Stefi Clar, seed producer and board member of organic seed nonprofit Dreschflegel e.V., was quoted by the Switzerland-based Initiative for GE-free Seeds and Breeding (IG Saatgut) as saying that if the EU Commission’s proposal is adopted, “An increase in the cultivation of genetically modified plants is to be expected, which would then grow in the open without any coexistence, liability, transparency or monitoring requirements. Their harvested products could be marketed unlabelled. Due to cross-pollination and contamination, this would prospectively lead to an agriculture that would be highly interspersed with genetically modified organisms in a completely non-transparent, non-traceable manner. The freedom of choice to produce and consume non-GMO seeds and non-GMO foods would no longer exist.”
The organic industry organisation IFOAM Organics Europe’s Jan Plagge said, “Exempting certain NGTs from risk assessment, traceability and labelling is a step backward for biosafety and consumer information, and is unlikely to bring any benefit for sustainability. Rather, this proposal is a massive accelerator for a lucrative business model from the biotech and chemical industry.” He called on the Council and Parliament to at least maintain traceability for new GMOs (NGTs) “all along the production chain” as a legal basis for measures to ensure co-existence and consumer information.
Clara Behr of the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International agreed that “Risk assessment, traceability, and labelling must be ensured for all GMOs, including NGTs.” The Federation said in a statement, “While a transition to more sustainable farming practices to tackle climate change is a necessity, a weakening of the current GMO regulations is clearly not the way forward. Instead of relying on technological fixes whose benefits are unproven and with potential unintended effects and risks on our environment and biodiversity, the EU should focus on proven solutions such as organic and biodynamic farming which have demonstrated real benefits for climate and biodiversity.”
Scientists criticise proposal
The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) published an analysis saying that the Commission’s proposal is “scientifically unacceptable, removes the provisions of the precautionary principle and puts the public and environment at risk”. The report concludes, “New genetic modification technologies (and their applications) that have not been trialled and tested for years, including under real field conditions over years and systematically assessed for their impacts on health and environment should by definition not be exempted but rather strictly regulated and monitored. Serious abuse and unintentional misuse of CRISPR/Cas, which is easy to use and cheap for any lay person, will likely follow from this deregulation.”
The research association Testbiotech has published a backgrounder on the proposal, in which it states that it “sees no possibility of exempting specific groups of New GE plants from mandatory risk assessment”. Testbiotech explains that “In most cases, NGTs are used to achieve genomic changes which go beyond what is known from conventional breeding, even without the insertion of additional genes. Detailed analysis and molecular risk assessment are, therefore, necessary in each case to identify the differences and similarities between NGTs and conventional breeding before any conclusions can be drawn.” It adds, “While it is possible to target a specific site in the genome with gene scissors, it is not possible to sufficiently predict or control the result of these interventions either in the genome, the plants or the environment. Therefore, the risk assessment should not be restricted to the intended effects of the final products, but has to include the unintended effects caused by the processes.”
Cautionary tale from a GMO developer
Dr Belinda Martineau, developer of the first GMO intended for human consumption, the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato, published a revealing article showing why it’s vital to regulate all GMOs, including those made with new GM techniques. She points out that Alison Van Eenennaam’s gene-edited hornless cattle were in 2019 found to unexpectedly contain bacterial DNA and antibiotic resistance genes. For Martineau, it was something of a replay of the events of the 1990s, when she and her colleagues at Calgene “found that we had inadvertently inserted bacterial DNA into the Flavr Savr tomatoes we were analysing and preparing for commercial sales”.
Fortunately, Martineau and her colleagues were careful enough to spot the error before commercialisation. The same cannot be said for Van Eenennaam, who used her supposedly nature-identical cattle to argue against the US FDA’s proposed GMO regulations before her blunder was discovered by FDA scientists who chanced to carry out a non-mandatory analysis of their own.
Critical scientists also feature alongside farmers and an MEP in an insightful article by reporter Allis Moss for the New European, titled, “The EU’s dangerous climbdown over Frankenfoods”.
It seems, however, that rather than learning from these real-life experiences of genetic modification, the deregulation lobby are determined to ignore them and live in a fantasy land of “precision”, “predictability”, and imagined safety.
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