VIB lobbying statement

VIB falsely claims that individual academic supporters for de-regulation of gene editing represent their institutes as a whole

The Belgian biotechnology research institute VIB has long acted as a cheerleader for GM crops (for example, see this report).

But now, in a lobbying campaign to weaken EU regulations on genetically modified crops and foods produced by new gene-editing techniques, VIB is actively misleading the public and regulators and misrepresenting the institutions it claims to be speaking for.

The story began with a sign-on "position paper", which VIB first published in October 2018. In the paper, VIB attacked the European Court of Justice's ruling that gene-editing techniques are genetic engineering and produce GMOs – requiring safety checks and labelling. The VIB said the ruling "proves that current EU GMO legislation is outdated and not in line with recent scientific evidence. As a result, it is crucial that the legislation be adapted such that organisms containing small edits are not subject to the provisions of the GMO legislation, but instead fall under the regime that applies to conventionally bred varieties".

In its announcement of the launch of the position paper, VIB complained that the court's ruling amounts to a "de facto ban of innovative crop breeding" that will negatively impact Europe's economy. It said that the large number of "leading scientists" who signed onto the VIB statement "representing" various plant and life sciences research centres and institutes proves that there is "a solid consensus among the academic life science research community in Europe on the negative consequences of this ruling".

To date, VIB claims that no less than 127 research institutes "support" the statement.

But this is false and grossly misleading. The VIB's position paper contains 127 signatories with the logos of their research institutes alongside, implying that each institute as a whole supports the position. But the signatories are academics and researchers, as well as the occasional rector of a university, who signed in their individual capacity. Their views cannot be assumed to represent the official views of the institutions in which they work.

No evidence has been presented by VIB to show that consultations were conducted to ascertain a consensus view of the entire university or research institute. It is highly unlikely that such a consensus view could ever be established for any one organisation, let alone the 127 that VIB claims support its position.

It is a core and long-standing principle of academic freedom that academics who speak or write in public "are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution". VIB either does not understand this principle or chooses to flout it. Either is reprehensible.

The VIB has also misled the European Commission. It wrote a letter to the Commission demanding de-regulation for gene-edited products "On behalf of... European research centres that support the position statement".

In its failure to draw a distinction between the support of individual academics and that of the institutions for which they work, the VIB has placed corporate interests above those of health and environment. It has also abandoned any claim to academic and scientific integrity.

There are, of course, many academics who feel that there are good reasons why the products of gene editing should not evade the EU's GMO regulation. In a referenced statement published by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), they said, "From a strictly scientific and technical perspective, NGMTs [new genetic modification techniques] are clearly genetic modification procedures that result in the production of GMOs.

"Such techniques give rise to predictable as well as inadvertently generated risks when used in a context of agriculture, conservation or ecological management. Therefore the products of NGMTs in these contexts (viruses, microbes, plants and animals) should be at least as stringently regulated as the organisms produced with the transgenic methods used in currently commercialized GMOs."

But we can't rely on the VIB to address the evidence presented in the ENSSER statement. Their focus is on priorities other than science.