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Deregulation of new GMO crops: science or business?

by Atlanta Business Journal

Academics and biotech research organisations with corporate interests have been leading the lobby campaign to deregulate new genomic techniques in the EU — using ‘climate-friendly’ and ‘science-based’ narratives, a new report revealed on Thursday (29 September).

The findings come just a few days after the Czech EU Council presidency voiced support to loosen regulations for genetically-modified food and seed technologies in the EU.

“Advocacy is an acceptable part of democracy, but presenting stakeholders as neutral scientists is not,” reads the report by the Greens in the European Parliament, which builds on Corporate Europe Observatory’s (CEO) previous research.

Political pressure to change current rules for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) has been mounting since 2018 — when the European Court of Justice ruled that new techniques like CRISPR-Cas still fall under the current framework dealing with genetic-engineering products.

Current legislation imposes a pre-market authorisation on any GMO sold to consumers, following a risk assessment, as well as traceability, labelling, and monitoring obligations.

Following a request by EU member states, the commission published a study last year arguing that the current regulation is not “fit for purpose” and needs to be amended to contribute to sustainable food systems.

A legislative proposal on “plants produced by certain new genomic techniques” is due in spring 2023. What this will look like is still unclear.

But environmental groups and green MEPs fear that the upcoming commission proposal will lower standards for risk assessment and monitoring, or even forgo labelling requirements.

Industry players want to see GM plants that have no ‘foreign DNA’ intentionally added to their genome excluded from the EU GMO legislation. They argue that such DNA changes could also occur in nature — and that gene-edited crops are key to achieving EU green goals.

The report shows how the lobby platform EU-SAGE, founded by the Flemish Biotech Institute (VIB), the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) working group and the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) network have made similar claims.

It also notes that several academics involved in these three organisations have “strong links” with the seed industry and hold patents or patent applications in this area — which are not publicly disclosed.

Organic farming at risk

The debate about the deregulation of new genomic techniques has increased in recent months, due to fears over food security — but the commission has acknowledged the risks of the hype.

In a briefing for a meeting between the commission’s agricultural department and the lobby group Euroseed, representing companies like Syngenta and Bayer, the commission said that linking new genomic techniques to food security is “not helpful”.

“This was done with GMOs in the past and ultimately the premises made were counterproductive. It is important not to promise more than what the technology can deliver,” reads the briefing.

Meanwhile, many fear that the upcoming commission proposal will undermine consumers’ rights.

Nina Holland, a researcher at CEO, warned that getting rid of labelling requirements would not only hinder consumers’ rights but also organic farming as people will struggle to spot GMO-free products.

Green MEPs and environmentalists have urged the commission to implement the 2018 court ruling, voicing concerns over the influence that organisations with vested interests have on policy-making.

“Our decisions must be based on independent scientific advice. We cannot take scientific advice from scientists who have vested interests in the commercialisation of these products,” said Green MEP Martin Häusling.

Lobby groups, for their part, have slammed the 2018 court ruling for being a setback for the application of new genomic techniques — which are already well-established in markets outside the EU, like the US.

“It [the ruling] created a situation in which the application of the GMO legislation would block many applications of genome-edited organisms, while at the same time the scientific community saw an enormous potential in this technology to contribute to a more sustainable agriculture and food production and help mitigate climate change,” the chairman of EU-SAGE Dirk Inzé told EUobserver.

Czech presidency

Moreover, EU-SAGE and the Czech branch of ALLEA have managed to gain the support of the Czech EU Council presidency for one of their high-profile conferences on gene editing taking place in Prague on 13-14 October.

The conference, which features the logo of the EU presidency, will address “how the potential of genome-edited crops for more sustainable agriculture in Europe can be established with broader societal support”.

EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has been invited to take part in the programme.

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