Did you think GM crops and foods had pretty much gone away in Europe? Now they’re set to return.
If lobbyists get their way, new genetically modified (GM) crops, foods, and farm animals will appear in our fields and on our dinner plates – with few or no safety checks and no labelling.
These new GM crops and foods are produced with so-called gene-editing techniques. Gene-edited organisms already developed include super-muscled pigs (similar to the one in the image above), a non-browning mushroom, and a soybean that produces altered fats.
GMO companies are also planning to market a new generation of gene-edited herbicide-tolerant crops, including wheat. These plants are engineered to survive being sprayed with large amounts of toxic herbicides, such as those based on glyphosate.
Gene-editing techniques are often called “New Breeding Techniques” (NBTs). But they are not breeding techniques. They are artificial laboratory GM techniques that result in the production of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Gene-editing techniques are not precise and the effects cannot be predicted or controlled. This means that plants developed using these methods could contain new toxins or allergens, or have unexpected effects on wildlife.
We must act now to demand that “new GMOs” continue to be strictly regulated and labelled. Otherwise, farmers and consumers won’t have a choice about whether to grow or eat the new GMOs because they won’t know what is and what is not a GMO.
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For the past few years the GMO lobby – agbiotech industry people and lobby groups, patent-holding scientists, and researchers from institutions that have invested heavily in the GMO food venture – has been trying to get gene-edited crops and animals exempted from the GMO regulations in the EU and at national level. The aim is to allow these “new GMOs” to escape the safety checks currently required for all GMOs and ensure that they do not have to carry a GM label.
But in 2018, in an important victory for the public, the EU Court of Justice ruled that foods and crops produced with certain gene-editing techniques (called mutagenesis techniques in the case) are indeed GM, that they pose similar risks as older-type GMOs, and that they must be subjected to the same safety checks and labelling.
In response, the GMO lobby is putting pressure on decision-makers to change the rules to exempt gene-edited GMOs from the GMO regulations in the European Union, or to subject them only to “light-touch” regulation. This is the perfect time for the lobbyists to push for a change in the law, as in the wake of the 2019 EU elections, the new Commission will define its work programme over the next months.
What’s at stake in the de-regulation battle?
The EU’s current GMO laws regulate approval, safety checks, traceability, and labelling requirements for GM seeds, food and feed.
If new GMOs are removed from the scope of the regulation, we face the threat of untested and unlabelled “hidden GMOs” entering our fields and food supply.
But if new GMOs stay regulated, GM food will have to be labelled throughout the European Union under EU law. Farmers will retain their right to choose whether to grow GMOs and consumers will be able to make informed decisions about the food on their plates.
Other battles around gene editing
Despite claims of the naturalness and safety of gene-editing techniques, they have been recognised by the US Intelligence Community as posing a security threat, since they can be used to engineer bioweapons. For example, they can be used to develop viruses that attack people's DNA, or to engineer "killer mosquitoes". They can also be used to engineer "gene drives", designed to eradicate entire species or wipe out a staple crop.
Are GM foods already in the EU?
A number of GM foods are allowed to be used in human food and animal feed in the EU, but due to strong public rejection, the food sector has phased them out. The vast majority of GM foods imported into the EU end up in animal feed. Meat, eggs and dairy from GM-fed animals do not have to carry a disclosing label, so shoppers are not aware which products come from GM-raised animals. The rest of the imported GMOs are used as biofuels to power cars.
The cultivation of GM crops is allowed in the EU, but more than 17 countries have thus far chosen to ban them from their fields. Thus only one GM maize variety is grown in Spain.
Are GMOs the answer to our food and farming problems?
Gene-edited plants and farm animals are being hyped as the answer to many of our food and agricultural problems. Back in the 1990s, many of the same promises were made for the first generation of GM crops and foods.
Yet two decades on, 99% of GM crops are engineered with just two traits:
* Herbicide tolerance, to enable the plant to survive being sprayed with large amounts of toxic weedkillers
* Insecticidal, to kill insects.
GM hasn’t provided higher-yielding, more nutritious, more environmentally sustainable, or climate-resilient crops, compared with the naturally bred crops already available to farmers.
On the contrary, GM has led to the spread of herbicide-resistant superweeds, escalating herbicide use, and pests resistant to the insecticidal toxins engineered into GM crops.
The chief ingredient of the Roundup herbicide used with most GM crops, glyphosate, has been classed as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC.
So we should be skeptical about claims made for “new GM” crops, foods, and farm animals. Such claims are marketing hype that do not reflect what is ready to be grown in farmers’ fields.
Are GMOs needed to feed the world?
We are told that GM is needed to feed the world’s growing population. But this is false. There is no global food shortage. We already produce enough food to feed 14 billion people – more than the 9 billion projected at peak population in 2050. We already have thousands of food plants that are adapted to different climate and soil conditions, high yielding, and resistant to pests and diseases.
In the developed world, 40% of all food is wasted and we have an obesity crisis. In the developing world, hunger is widespread. However, hunger is not caused by a shortage of food production, but by poverty – people cannot afford to buy the food that is plentifully available in markets, even in the poorest countries. Increasingly, they lack access to land on which to grow food. Hunger is a political and social issue that cannot be solved by GM crops.
For example, Argentina is one of the world’s leading producers of GM crops. But since the government embraced the GM model of agriculture, land has been converted from growing food for people to growing GM soy for exported animal feed. As a result, food poverty has grown into a serious problem.
A report on the future of food and agriculture authored by over 400 international scientists and sponsored by the UN, the World Bank, and the World Health Organisation concluded that the best way to feed the world’s growing population was agroecology, a system of ecologically responsible farming methods. The report did not endorse GM crops as a solution to hunger, noting that yields were “highly variable”, that safety questions persisted, and that the patents attached to them could undermine seed saving and food security in developing countries.
Where do solutions lie?
Techno-fixes like GM cannot solve complex problems like climate change. And the traits we need for sustainable agriculture, such as plants that are resilient to pests and climate changes, cannot be obtained by tweaking one or a few genes, as with GM techniques (including gene-editing techniques). That’s because these traits have many genes at their basis, working together in complex networks.
We need a climate-resilient system of food production that protects ecosystems and delivers healthy food for all. Locally adapted solutions developed in collaboration between farmers, researchers, and local communities are the real innovative food future.
Who’s behind the de-regulation push?
The agrochemical companies that pushed GMOs the first time around have learned that this doesn’t work with the public. So they have convinced foundations, researchers and academic institutions to do their promotional work instead. In most cases, these organisations and individuals are not independent. For example, many universities and researchers depend on agbiotech industry funding and may own agbiotech patents.
In reality, the same big companies and organisations are behind the “new GM” push as were behind the “old GM” push: Bayer (which bought Monsanto in 2018), DowDuPont/Corteva, Syngenta, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Are new GMOs safe to eat?
No one knows if new GMOs are safe to eat because no feeding studies have been conducted in humans or animals.
However, a number of animal feeding studies with the first generation of GM crops show that the GM diet harmed the animals’ health. Ill effects include organ damage, immune responses, and altered blood biochemistry and gut bacteria.
In most cases we don’t know if the effects were caused by the GMO or toxic residues of the pesticides it was grown with. The studies were never followed up to find out. Instead the scientists who conducted them were attacked and persecuted by a well-funded and aggressive GMO lobby, with some losing their careers and funding.
Are new GMO techniques precise?
Scientists still do not fully understand the effects of gene-editing processes on living organisms. All that’s certain is that in the coming years, more and more surprises will come to light. An ever-growing body of research shows that contrary to GMO lobby claims, gene-editing tools are not precise, nor are their outcomes predictable. They produce many mutations (damage to DNA) and unintended effects, not only at “off-target” sites of the genome (sites that were not intended to be “edited”), but also at the intended gene-edited site.
Many unintended effects occur after the gene-editing tool has finished its task, when the editing process is at the mercy of the cell’s DNA repair machinery, over which genetic engineers have little or no control.
The tissue culture process that is a necessary part of producing a gene-edited plant also produces many mutations in the plant’s DNA.
What does this mean for the consumer and the environment? Genetic manipulation techniques, including gene editing, bring about new combinations of gene functions and can change the composition of plants in unexpected ways. This means that they could produce new toxins or allergens, or have unexpected effects on wildlife. That's why the law requires safety checks on GMOs before they can be used in Europe.
Are new GM techniques actually new breeding techniques?
Gene-editing techniques are not “New Breeding Techniques”, or NBTs, as the industry likes to call them. They are artificial laboratory GM techniques that disrupt the organism’s DNA with unpredictable consequences and result in the production of GMOs.
The radical nature of genetic manipulation techniques, including “new GM” techniques, can bring about mutations (damage to DNA) and other changes in the genome that would not occur in natural breeding. A scientific review confirms that the CRISPR gene-editing tool produces different effects than natural mutations and certain techniques used in conventional breeding, called radiation- and chemical-induced mutagenesis.
In conventional breeding and in natural processes, some regions in the genome undergo changes less frequently than others because these regions are protected by repair mechanisms in the cell. CRISPR gene-editing tools can bypass these naturally occurring processes.
Are mutations natural?
Exposure to natural stresses like sunlight can also cause mutations in plants. So GMO advocates say that mutations are evolutionary and natural, and thus we should not worry about the mutations caused by gene-editing techniques.
But in reality, mutation rates in nature are normally low. Organisms go to great lengths to keep them as low as possible, because many mutations are harmful. This is also why regulators worldwide try to minimize our exposure to manmade mutagens, such as certain chemicals.
Just because DNA damage sometimes occurs in nature in response to a stress does not mean it is wise to deliberately cause it in our food plants. We do not know what effects any given mutation in a plant will have on its composition and thus on consumers of the plant or the environment.
Most plants will have encountered environmental stresses before in their evolutionary history and any plants that have become toxic or allergenic in response will have been eliminated from breeding programmes.
But with GM, the changes induced are by definition novel – or the results could not be patented – so we must assume that the effects of those changes could be unexpected and potentially risky. A statement by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility draws attention to the risks. It demands that all products of new GM techniques are regulated at least as strictly as older-style GMOs and that they are labelled.
Why would a plant be toxic?
Even natural plants are good at making their own toxins, to repel pests and diseases. But plant breeders who use natural breeding techniques have been drawing on the same genetic pool for many generations and know which problem substances to test for (e.g. alkaloids in potatoes). That means they can eliminate from the breeding pool any individual plants with problematic levels of toxins or allergens.
This is why regulators worldwide accept that our food crops have a history of safe use, against which GMOs are compared in risk assessments. “New GMOs”, in contrast, do not have a history of safe use, as stated in the ruling by the European Court of Justice. The court found that “new GM” foods and crops may pose similar risks to older-style GMOs and thus should be subjected to safety checks and labelling.
Should we change to “product-based” regulation for new GMOs?
Advocates of de-regulation argue that if any regulations are applied to new GMOs, they should be “product-based” (also called “trait-based”) only and should ignore the process by which the GMO was produced.
This system would only look at the intended effects of the genetic modification – for example, herbicide tolerance. It would not pick up on the many unintended effects of genetic modification processes, including gene editing.
Currently the EU’s GMO laws are process-based. Process-based means that a GM oil must be labelled as a GM product even if the GMO cannot be detected in the final product. This is one of core principles of the GMO laws. The process-based element also ensures that regulators look at the uncertainties inherent in genetic modification processes as well as the intended trait that the developer aims to obtain.
We need to ensure that the EU keeps applying process-based regulations to both new and old GMOs.
Are gene-edited plants indistinguishable from conventionally bred ones?
The GMO lobby claims that gene-edited plants can be indistinguishable from conventionally bred plants. But there’s no evidence that this is true for any gene-edited plant. The strongest reason to believe it is false is that all GMOs are patented – profits from patents are the chief reason why the industry develops them. In order to patent a GMO plant or animal, the GMO developer company has to tell the patent office that the product is unique and constitutes a novel “invention” that could not happen in nature.
Yet the same companies and affiliated lobbyists tell the public and regulators that their new GMO products cannot be distinguished from conventionally bred plants.
Both claims cannot be true.
No GMO developer company would have an interest in releasing a GMO that cannot be distinguished from a plant that is conventionally bred. That’s because the company needs to protect its patented invention from those who may copy it and from farmers who may try to illegally save and replant a patented gene-edited seed. Thus the company must be able to distinguish its product from a naturally bred plant. The GMO business model requires it.
Are new GMOs detectable?
We’re told by advocates of de-regulation that some new GMOs cannot be detected. But this argument is not valid.
Currently the EU’s GMO regulations demand that the developer company provides a sample of the GMO and a detection method to the regulators before the GMO can be authorised. This requirement simply needs to be enforced with new gene-edited GMOs: “No detection method, no market.”
For unauthorized and undeclared gene-edited products for which no prior information exists, detection is more challenging, but it is possible. Given the resources and a mandate, scientists at the GMO detection labs will be able to develop detection methods. But thus far they have not been given such resources or mandates. This is a political issue and not a scientific one.
In fact, the problem of detectability of certain GMOs in imports is not new. Some illegally present first generation GMOs were also difficult to detect because they were not authorized anywhere in the world and so no information on their DNA sequence was available.
But the EU gained experience on how to protect its citizens against these illegal GMOs. In 2006, an unauthorized GM rice developed by Bayer and grown only in field trials in the US was found on several continents. The reaction of the EU Commission was to develop sampling and detection methods and to require importers to the EU to apply them, in order to prove that their shipments did not contain any illegal contamination. The same approach was used in 2009 with GM flax seed from Canada.
In order to help deal with such scenarios, a global database should be established for all GMO field trials and other releases, with details of the GMOs involved and detection methods.
Are those who demand regulation of “new GMOs” against innovation?
It is illogical and unscientific to equate GM with “innovation”, including gene-editing techniques. Conventional plant breeding continues to outstrip GM in producing crops with desirable traits, such as high yield, tolerance to extreme weather and soil conditions, enhanced nutrition, and resistance to pests and diseases. These desirable traits are known as complex traits because they are the products of many genes working together in networks that are not well understood.
The continuing successful track record of conventional breeding means that it can more justifiably be called “innovative” than can genetic manipulation techniques.
GM (including gene editing), which relies on tweaking one or a few genes at a time and invariably causes unintended effects, is fundamentally unsuited to developing plants and livestock with valuable complex traits.
A selection of non-GM breeding successes is collected in the GMWatch database.
Finally, crop genetics are only part of innovation in agriculture. Farming methods are also crucial. Organic and agroecological farming methods combine innovation and scientific knowledge with traditional practices, such as crop rotation, growing a wide diversity of crops, and companion planting.
GM crop developers cannot claim a monopoly on innovation and it is debatable whether any GM crop has proven genuinely innovative.
If we reject new GM techniques in the EU, will we lose international competitiveness?
We are not asking for a ban on new GM techniques – just for them to be regulated and labelled.
However, even if that led to a rejection of new GMOs, it’s unlikely to hinder our agricultural competitiveness. It is more likely to help it.
A peer-reviewed study compared data on agricultural productivity in the US and Western Europe over the past 50 years, focusing on maize, canola, and wheat. The study found that North American farming systems, based on GM seeds in the case of maize and canola, were lowering yields and increasing pesticide use, compared to Western Europe’s almost entirely non-GM farming systems. So the mostly non-GM farming systems of Western Europe are reducing chemical inputs and thus becoming more sustainable than those of the US, without sacrificing yields.
In 2016 an investigation for the New York Times updated the study to see if these trends still held true. They did: the investigation found that “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides”.
Gene editing has not been proven to produce a single crop that is higher yielding or needs less pesticide than conventional breeding.
So it’s hard to see how rejecting gene-edited crops could lead to under-performance in our agricultural sector. Quite the reverse, since non-GM crops are preferred by many food markets, including in Europe and large parts of Asia. Even in the US, the home of GM crops, the Non-GMO Project’s non-GMO certification is one of the fastest growing labels in the retail sector.
GMO contamination of non-GM crops has repeatedly led to market rejections, some of them catastrophically expensive and long-lasting in impact (see the book GMO Myths and Truths for examples).
This trend of GMO contamination will massively increase if gene-edited crops are not regulated and labelled.
If new GMOs are de-regulated, will this allow small- and medium-size breeders to compete with big corporations?
This argument is based on ignorance of the GMO industry business model. Although genetic engineering is regulated in most countries, thousands of research institutes and plant biotechnology labs across the world use gene-editing and older-style genetic engineering tools. Nevertheless, these processes are highly technical. They demand expensive and complex equipment, as well as specially trained technicians, to carry out. More importantly, new GMOs are patented: patents are expensive to obtain. These hard facts cannot be altered by de-regulating gene editing techniques.
There was a similar situation around 20 years ago when a number of companies attempted to make a profit from plant genetic engineering. The only survivors from this era are the companies that had enough money to hire the best patent attorneys and filed numerous patents. Experience shows that in a scenario dominated by patents, small- and medium-sized breeders cannot survive on their own in the long term – contrary to the situation with the plant variety protection law, which protects the rights of breeders using conventional plant breeding.
Nevertheless, there is a well-trodden way for small- and medium-sized breeders to succeed within the agbiotech business model. This model is similar to that of other industries, from chocolate manufacture to pharmaceuticals development. There is no such thing as “too small to succeed”. Individuals or small companies with a promising idea or product partner with investors and/or a big company to patent the product and bring it to market. That process includes, in the case of a regulated product like a pharmaceutical drug or GMO, the investors or large partner company paying the costs of obtaining regulatory approval.
This is how GMOs currently in the marketplace have been developed. Genetic engineers based in small companies or universities, often using industry funding, “invent” a GMO, which is then patented and owned by the big company, with the inventors and their institutions enjoying a profit-sharing arrangement.
The inventors and universities involved do not lose out. They make good profits from the model, which is why universities have entire departments specializing in transferring “inventions” generated by their academic staff to industry. Often in this process, small seed companies are bought up by larger ones.
In no area where this business model is followed is it considered a cause for lamentation. On the contrary, it is celebrated as a path to success for all involved, particularly the individual(s) responsible for the idea or invention, who can find themselves in the fortunate position of being able to take a well-funded early retirement.
In addition, there is an alternative route to success in the highly concentrated seed market. As new GMOs are patented products, the big companies will rush to secure their market shares, so smaller seed companies may prefer to offer alternative and niche products.
The conclusion is that the “small- and medium-sized business” argument for de-regulating new GMOs is a false construct designed to deceive the public and policymakers.
Who will buy “new GMO” seeds?
The global seed market is highly competitive and in most countries it is saturated. There are no new buyers for “new GMO” seeds on the horizon, but farmers who already buy seeds can be convinced to buy new products. This might be useful for seed companies, because they can sell their new GMO seeds and their accompanying chemical inputs at higher prices. But it will not be good for farmers.
Other countries have decided not to regulate gene-edited foods. Shouldn’t Europe follow them in the interests of a harmonized global system?
There have always been differences in how the EU regulates GMOs and pesticides, compared with other regions and countries. Those other regions and countries know that they have to meet certain standards to export food to Europe or face sanctions and import rejections. It will be no different for new GMOs, if Europe ends up with a different regulatory regime from that of other regions.
Many people living in other parts of the world envy the EU its precautionary GMO regulations and stricter pesticide residue levels.
New gene-edited products are potentially as risky as older GM products. Gene-editing techniques are still far from perfect and produce many unintended effects. In the case of gene-edited crops and foods, this could lead to unexpected toxicity or allergenicity, or harmful impacts on the environment.
Under current EU law, “new GMOs” are regulated as strictly as older-style GMOs and must be subjected to safety checks and labelling. However, a well-funded lobby is trying to get the law changed so that new GMOs escape safety checks and labelling, or are subjected only to “light-touch” regulation.
This ignores the inherent risks and uncertainties of all genetic modification processes (including gene editing) and would fail to protect public health and the environment from untested and unlabelled GMOs.
Concerned members of the public must act now to ensure that new GMOs remain strictly regulated and labelled.