EU supermarkets eclipse UK sector with calls for strong regulation of gene editing

May 27, 2021 by Staff Reporter

Retailers have a great deal of power to sway the debate on the regulation of gene editing. That is why, during the recent UK public consultation on deregulating foods created using gene editing, Beyond GM and Slow Food UK teamed up for a public appeal to our major retailers.

More than 50 UK civil society groups, academics and brands signed our letter asking UK supermarkets  to stand up for strong regulation and to refuse to stock unregulated gene edited foods.

The initiative, which began as a small social media appeal with the hashtag #NotInMySupermarket, soon gained ground with very active engagement from consumers and a positive statement from the Co-op – followed by some backtracking after government criticism and a lacklustre statement from the British Retail Consortium.

We have since met and corresponded with several of the supermarkets we contacted (and we continue to reach out to those that have not responded).

While we have been encouraged by that contact, we have also been frustrated by the lack of willingness to engage publicly and productively with an issue which is clearly of concern to the majority of their customers and which may have implications for food and sustainability in the future..

We haven’t given up and with the imminent publication of Defra’s report on the consultation (due mid-June) retailers – and perhaps taking inspiration from the strong consultation response and continued appeals for caution, from Unite the Union, whose 1.2 million strong membership includes many in the retail sector – have another chance to speak out in support of strong regulation. We hope they take it.

European retailers are putting the pressure on

What a contrast the British retailers’ response is to that of their counterparts on the continent.

Europe is currently wrestling with the same issues around the deregulation of gene editing. But there retailers are taking the lead.

In a strong statement, Retailers’ Resolution: European retailers take a strong stand against deregulating new GMOs, leading companies of the European food retail sector, among them major international brands as well as numerous national and organic retailers, demand that the proven-effective regulation of GMOs on the European market be maintained. This applies to products of “old genetic engineering” (primarily soy, maize, rapeseed) as well as to those produced with “new genetic engineering” methods such as CRISPR or TALEN.

“As representatives of key European retailers we insist that the existing EU GMO legislation – with the precautionary principle and transparency requirements as its central pillars – continue to be applied to new GMOs. New GMOs must continue to be regulated in the same manner as old GMOs,” is one of the key demands of the resolution, which also refers to the corresponding ruling of the European Court of Justice of 25 July 2018.

The food retailers express their great concern that the EU Commission might give in to years of massive pressure from the biotech and seed lobby and immediately initiate deregulation for some or all new genetic engineering techniques. With the publication of the EU Commission’s stakeholder consultation on 29 April 2021, such a deregulation – and thus an opening of the European market for untested and invisible new GMOs – is moving into the realms of possibility.

Speaking to GMWatch, Heike Moldenhauer, Secretary General of ENGA AISBL, the European Non-GMO Industry Association, said, “The EU Commission is seriously considering abolishing the current comprehensive risk assessment and labelling for 95 percent of all GMOs produced with new genetic engineering. In doing so, the Commission is undermining the precautionary principle and freedom of choice, two fundamental principles of the European Union. And it is putting at risk what is a matter of course under the current legal situation: GMO-free production and nutrition. We therefore call on the EU Commission to abandon its course of deregulation for new GMOs and to continue to guarantee approval procedures, traceability, labelling and thus transparency for consumers and the food sector.”

Booming “non-GMO” and organic sector at risk

In Germany, “Non-GMO” and organic products now each generate double-digit billions in sales, with strong growth year after year. The share of products with the corresponding quality labels in food sales is growing. The situation is similar in other EU countries. This future markets would be threatened by deregulation. “New GMOs must continue to be regulated in the same manner as old GMOs. Any other outcome from the political and scientific discussions currently underway would seriously undermine our own businesses, as well as the businesses of many farmers and seed, feed and food producers, especially in the highly-successful organic sector”, the Retailers’ Resolution states.

Making transparency and traceability impossible

If deregulation were to take place, products from new genetic engineering processes would be put on the market without risk assessment, untested and without labelling. The “Non-GMO” label, which has been established for many years and is appreciated by consumers, must keep its promise, i.e. it must reliably exclude new GMOs as well as “old” ones. This is only possible with binding GMO approval procedures and labelling along the entire value chain.

Incompatible with the Green Deal

The organic sector would also be massively affected by a deregulation of new GMOs: The exclusion of any use of genetic engineering is explicitly anchored in the EU regulation on organic farming – as an important selling point for organic products. It would not only be the European organic sector itself that would be at risk: the expansion of organic farming in Europe to 25 percent by 2030, as envisaged in the EU Commission’s ambitious Green Deal, would also be at stake. In general, GMO deregulation is incompatible with the Green Deal and the strengthening of the EU food system towards resilience and sustainability, write the food retailers.

A responsibility to their customers

The risk of unintentionally and unknowingly selling untested and unlabelled GMOs from new genetic engineering methods is unacceptable to the food retailers. They say, “As retailers, we are fully responsible and liable for the safety of all the products we sell,” adding, “full transparency and freedom of choice for our customers is one of our key values.” And customers have clear wishes: “As retailers we must be highly sensitive to the social, behavioural and food-related patterns of our customers: Throughout Europe reports show that a substantial majority of consumers have no demand whatsoever for GMOs in their food.”