Pro-GMO agriculture minister and industry lobbyists mislead press and public
Some people have expressed alarm at recent reports suggesting CRISPR crops aren’t GMOs in the eyes of France, or that France is challenging EU’s cautious gene-editing regulations.
These stories all seem to derive from a Reuters report, France backs non-GMO regulation for crop gene-editing in EU, which has then been heavily promoted by industry PR messengers like the Genetic Literacy Project and ISAAA’s Crop Biotech Update.
The Reuters report is based on statements by France’s agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie. Speaking of new GM techniques, which he called NBTs (New Breeding Techniques) in line with industry parlance, Denormandie said, “NBTs are not GMOs. This (NBT) technology allows much quicker development of a variety that could have emerged naturally at some point, and that is a very good thing."
He is also said to have called for the products of NBTs not to be regulated like GMOs.
But any alarm about this is misplaced. This is the position of the agriculture minister, not of the French government.
While the agriculture ministry has a say in France’s stance on GMOs, so does the environment ministry, as well as several other ministries.
And although France’s agriculture ministry, in a pattern that is typical worldwide, is not only pro-GMO but highly vocal in its promotional activities, it is France’s environment ministry that has the lead on the issue at the EU level. And the environment minister hasn't issued any statement on this as yet.
More widely, it is worth remembering that despite the French agriculture ministry repeatedly dragging its heels France still remains committed to phasing out glyphosate completely and reducing pesticide use more broadly. France is even offering financial aid to farmers who agree to stop using glyphosate. And France’s health and environment agency has banned dozens of glyphosate-based weedkillers as not proven safe. Moreover, a ban on all herbicide use in public spaces, such as parks, has been in place since January 2017, and has been successfully extended to include private residences and gardens.
These policies have been so popular that some French mayors have gone further and sought to ban glyphosate completely in their municipalities, including on agricultural land, or else have tried to establish buffer zones between rural residents and crop spraying.
It is in this context of France’s evident willingness to stand up to agribiz interests that the agriculture minister’s words need to be judged. And so far there is no reason to think his statements represent anything other than the predictable personal views of a pro-GMO minister.