The biotech industry is working hard to convince decision makers and the public that the products of new GM techniques can go without safety checks and labelling
The article below is long but informative about the attempts by the GMO industry and its allies to pass off the products of new GM techniques as natural foods that don't need safety checks or labelling.
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#EmbracingNature? Biotech industry spin seeks to exempt new GMOs from regulation
Corporate Europe Observatory, May 14, 2018
In May 2017, the global biotech and seed industry lobby groups landed in Budapest for their annual congress. They launched a joint campaign with one key goal: to get governments worldwide to adopt a zero-regulation approach to new genetic modification (GM) techniques, often termed gene-editing techniques. The seed industry magazine SeedWorld stated that the timing of this international campaign is critical “as policymakers and governments around the world discuss plant breeding innovations, and if and how they should be regulated”.
Consumer resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is strong in Europe, and there is next to no cultivation nor human consumption of GM food. The biotech industry is therefore working hard to convince decision makers and the public that the products of these new GM techniques can go without safety checks and labeling.
To this end, a global seed lobby group the International Seed Federation (ISF) produced an internal communication toolkit giving seed companies detailed instructions and PR tricks for communication about new GM techniques. Their key message should be: new technologies, like oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), CRISPR-Cas9 or zinc finger nuclease (ZFN), are just a simple continuation of the classical plant breeding “that humankind has done for thousands of years”. “What we’re doing is basically boosting Mother Nature to a degree, just in a more efficient manner,” said Bayer’s head of agricultural research, Adrian Percy in The Wall Street Journal.
Another internal industry report done by Brussels-based consultancy FTI Consulting provides companies with a detailed mapping of the political and public debate on new GM techniques in ten EU countries.
Imposing safety tests on these products in the same way as is done for older GMOs, industry lobbyists say, would stifle innovation, hurt competitiveness and lead to disruptions in international trade. Industry claims that only techniques that will escape GM safety checks will be commercially successful. According to SeedWorld “regulatory policy will determine the methods used across companies and across crops”. While they should not be treated as GMOs when it comes to food and environmental safety, industry’s wish-list includes full intellectual property protection through patents, just like GMOs. The idea that farmers would replant seeds from their crops – as they have also done for thousands of years – without paying royalties, is something the seed industry wants to prevent at all costs.
The industry tries to convince regulators that products from gene-editing and other new GM techniques do not need safety checks if they are “similar or indistinguishable” from varieties that “could have been produced through earlier breeding methods”. They are referring to an exemption made in the 2001 EU GMO law for so called mutagenesis techniques applying high levels of radiation or chemicals to organisms or their cells. This exemption, lobby groups claim, should now be extended to new GM techniques.
But this would mean that plant breeders, farmers, food processors and consumers are losing their right to chose and take a well informed decision about the products they want to work with. From a biosafety perspective too, regulation of products of new GM techniques is needed, says the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER). Since these techniques are genetic modification procedures, “such techniques give rise to predictable as well as inadvertently generated risks when used in a context of agriculture, conservation or ecological management”, these critical scientists say. Therefore, the products of new techniques “should be at least as stringently regulated as the organisms produced with the transgenic methods used in currently commercialized GMOs”.
In Europe, as in most places, there is as yet no legal clarity as to how new GM techniques will be dealt with. The European Commission never succeeded in producing a proposal for how to deal with this. The waiting is now for a ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) following questions from the French Council of State. This ruling is expected by summer 2018. Then, EU decision makers will still need to hammer out crucial details. This could lead to new court cases because it is clear that, whatever the outcome, there will be winners and losers: in terms of company profits and in terms of environmental and food safety, and consumer choice.
New biotech PR tools: avoiding the GMO rabbit hole
The International Seed Federation (ISF), its US and EU member associations ASTA and ESA, and CropLife International (which combines biotech and pesticide companies at a global level) in 2017 developed an internal communication toolkit that was “designed to support ISF’s allies and partners in their outreach across their own networks, to their country’s policymakers” and to have them “aligned world wide”, said Jennifer Clowes, ISF’s communication manager. The key members of these lobby groups are the big names in biotech and pesticide production: Monsanto, Syngenta, ChemChina, DowDuPont, Bayer, BASF, along with seed multinationals like Limagrain, KWS Saat and Rijk Zwaan.
One year earlier, DowDuPont hired a consultancy to conduct roundtable discussions on gene editing, The Wall Street Journal reported. WSJ also reports that Bayer has set up an “Ambassador Program” to coach scientists for public speaking events on new GM techniques, similar to its 2012 “Bee Ambassador Program” set up to “establish dialogue” in the midst of the pollinator crisis.
The ISF discussion guide provides companies with detailed advice on how to set the tone for a public discussion on new GM techniques. Any communication on the subject needs to demonstrate “confidence, intelligence and optimism”. Technical jargon should be avoided, language should be simplified to suit the audience but “without patronizing them”.
Speakers should to stay calm and collected: “it’s a conversation, not a conflict, and don’t be too clinical”. One should “adapt to the needs of the audience and show them you’re interested in them”. Put positive energy into your words, and use storytelling techniques to share insights and “fascinating facts about plant breeding innovation”, such as: “Did you know that we’ll need to feed around 9 billion people by 2050? The good news is that plant breeding innovation is helping farmers grow more food on existing land with optimized inputs to increase food security.”
Seed companies are told: talk about “plant breeding innovation”, “methods”, or “tools”, but not techniques or technologies. Describe them as “most recent” or “improved”, not as new. And say that new GM varieties are “developed”, not created.
When the toolkit was launched at the 2017 ISF congress in Budapest, Jennifer Clowes said that, “the toolkit was put into practice with a personalized training session for 50 secretary generals of national and regional seed associations. Delivered by two BBC media trainers, the session included practical tasks on message mapping and interview skills.” The four seed industry lobby groups then embarked on social media campaigns to amplify the common messages from the toolkit. ...