September 14, 2023 by Staff Reporter
The recent 10th GMO-Free Europe Conference, a collaborative effort between the GMO-Free Network and the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament demonstrated significant scientific, political and citizen resistance to the EU’s plans to deregulate New Genomic Techniques (NGTs), also known as new GMOs or, in the UK, precision bred organisms (PBOs).
The packed event brought together diverse experts and advocates across the spectrum of science, policymaking, consumers, civil society and ethics to dissect the European Commission’s proposals for deregulating what it calls New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) aka new GMOs.
The Commission’s proposals are closely aligned with those of the UK’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, creating a broad category of new GMOs that it considers equivalent to traditionally bred organisms and then exempting these from regulation, labelling and traceability.
The Greens/EFA agricultural spokesperson in the Agriculture Committee, Martin Häusling MEP, summed up concerns of the day by accusing the EU executive of abandoning Europe’s precautionary principle in favour of indiscriminate innovation in service of new markets, and questioned the legitimacy of industry claims that NGTs could produce crops that help fight climate change, reduce pesticide use and ensure food security. Such promises, he said, crumble under scrutiny – and, indeed, this was the case during the course of the conference.
A strong lineup of speakers brought their expertise to bear on the three part conference which examined issues of science and precaution, labelling and traceability and the impact of deregulations on food and agricultural systems. While speakers were limited to only a few minutes each, together they painted an overwhelming picture of the multiple failures of the European proposals and the potential impacts if these proposals remain unamended.
Austrian Green MEP, Sarah Wiener, the rapporteur for the Sustainable Use of Pesticide Regulation (SUR), criticized the Commission’s intention to introduce GM plants into the EU market without rigorous risk assessments or proper labelling.
Dr Michelle Habets senior researcher at the Rathenau Instituut spoke about her group’s research with Dutch citizens, which revealed that although citizens see opportunities for NGTs, there is little enthusiasm for introducing them into crop breeding. Her group’s research revealed that citizens have doubts about the long-term safety of these techniques for humans and the environment; they view NGT crops as unlikely to contribute meaningfully to solving current challenges and they do not trust companies to develop crops that will contribute to solutions for societal challenges.
This last point was supported by a devastating analysis presented by Dr Margret Engelhard, Head of Division for Genetically Modified Organisms at BFN (the German Federal Agency for Nature Protection). The analysis, which looked at NGT plant applications by trait, confirmed that more than half of all New GMO plants in development and/or seeking authorisation were for crops with consumer- and industry-friendly traits (things that make them look nicer on the shelf such as pink pineapples and non-browning apples or which make turning them into processed foods or industrial products easier, such as high starch potatoes) and not for traits that would benefit climate, biodiversity or food security.
Engelhard also showed that, as currently written, the proposals for so-called category 1 NGTs (those considered essentially the same as natural or traditional) are so broad that 94% of all new GMOs could enter the market without safety or environmental assessments, and with no labelling or traceability.
Beyond GM Director Pat Thomas underscored the fact that countries outside of the EU, such as the UK and Norway, are deeply affected by EU regulatory decisions and were therefore watching developments closely. She also took the opportunity to level a broadside at the EU for following the advice of “issue advocate scientists” and for the failure of its proposals to recognise that “genetic engineering is not just a scientific issue. It is an ethical, environmental, social, economic, legal and cultural issue. Creating regulation – or indeed deregulation – without giving equal weight to these concerns and the diverse risks they represent is a procedural, policy and political failure.” [The full text of Pat’s speech is below]
Maddga Stockiewicz, Deputy Director of Greenpeace EU, noted that we are already crossing planetary boundaries and that without a process and legislation that allows us to look at the risks, and that includes provision for labelling and traceability, we simply should not release these organisms.
Georg Buchholz, attorney at law and partner of the law firm Gaßner, Groth, Siederer & Colleagues in Berlin, offered the view that the proposals as they stand, violate the precautionary principle, remove Member States’ right to opt out of growing and selling NGTs, are unclear about where liability lies if for instance, there is contamination of crops or the food supply, contain multiple errors in terms of risk assessment and provide no scientific basis for removing NGTs from general GMO law. As such they are open to legal challenge.
Erica Olsson, a farmer in Sweden and national chairman of the Swedish Organic Farmers’ Association, expressed strong concern about the deregulation proposal, asking how will her farm be able to stay GMO-free?
Her concerns were echoed by Bernard Lignon, a Regulatory and Quality Officer at SYNABIO (the French organic processors’ association) and member of the IFOAM Europe board, who noted that while the proposal maintains a ban of NGTs in organic production, it should also provide the means for producers to avoid these through traceability, labelling and coexistence measures. He further noted that organic operators should not bear the administrative and technical costs of having to deal with the presence of NGTs in the food chain.
Fabrizio Fabbri, food and sustainability Policy Manager for EuroCoop – Europe’s second strongest retail force, with €76B in annual turnover – summarised the EuroCoop’s position paper, which calls on EU legislators to uphold the strict regulation and avoid any deviations from the current legislative framework for GMОs, thereby ensuring “maximum consumer protection and information by maintaining the precautionary principle.” He also revealed that an internal survey of all the different country Coops positions on new GMOs, showed that only the UK Coop is out of step with the rest of Europe’s Coops in that it does not want risk assessment of NGTs but does still want labelling and traceability.
The European proposals as they stand are not good enough and certainly present risks for non-GMO and organic farmers and citizens – the majority of whom do not want to eat any kind of GMO.
The experts gathered at the GMO Free Europe event demonstrated intelligence, professionalism, dedication and a grasp of the bigger picture impacts of GMO deregulation that the European Commission has chosen to ignore. Europe’s regulatory decisions affect the whole world, it is therefore crucial that regulators listen to what is being said and act on it.
Although the situation looks grim, GMO Free Europe’s Benny Haerlin, speaking to ARC 2020, believes the fight is not lost, especially if citizens make their unhappiness known: “It is my experience that the GMO debate usually only starts when the broader public realises what lobbies and administrators have agreed upon. I am convinced that European citizens will not accept hidden GMOs in their food nor the release of GMOs into the environment with no safety check and no way to recall them.”
I’d like to begin with a quote:
“It is important to recognise the limits of science to solve fundamentally political questions. The challenges of ‘wicked’ problems and the need for ‘post-normal science’ call for science advice processes to be transparent and inclusive, as open and participatory (beyond the scientific and political elites) as possible, multidisciplinary, independent, and conducted with integrity. Scientific independence and integrity should be safeguarded from political interference, and scientists should act as ‘honest brokers’ rather than issue advocates.”
These words could have been written by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Via Campesina or even my own organisation. But they come from a 2022 Joint Research Centre report on the interplay between policymaking and scientific research and the multiple limitations of so-called science-based policy.
Science is, of course, important. But genetic engineering is not just a scientific issue. It is an ethical, environmental, social, economic, legal and cultural issue. Creating regulation – or indeed deregulation – without giving equal weight to these concerns and the diverse risks they represent is a procedural, policy and political failure.
In England we have already embraced this kind of failure. Abandoning foresight, transparency and precaution we have begun to implement some of the most liberal deregulation of NGTs in the world with a view to, eventually, deregulating all GMOs in UK food and farming.
We have done this by inventing random and poorly defined categories and criteria that exempt certain GMOs from risk assessment, labelling and traceability.
Our new legislation is not yet fully operational and we – like our colleagues in Norway who spoke earlier – are watching the EU for its next steps because the EU is a global regulatory power that has traditionally aspired to lead. Thanks to the so-called Brussels Effect, the EU has set global benchmarks in rational precautionary regulations around food standards, online safety and environmental protection to name just a few.
It is beyond perplexing that the EU now chooses to follow rather than lead and worse to follow the advice of “issue advocate” scientists.
Equally perplexing, given the need to protect our environment and food system and the endless rhetoric about sustainability and food security, is its willingness to place its faith in a scientific process that is demonstrably incomplete, inconclusive and uncertain.
We are now in an ‘Oppenheimer moment,’ contemplating dropping a bomb on our food system, and on nature, with little regard for consequences and justifying this with deficient science, disregard for ethics and environment, and nationalistic rhetoric about being innovators and winners.
It’s not too late to amend these proposals and it’s in the interest of all European citizens – and citizens elsewhere – to do so. My fellow panellists have detailed the inadequate science and empty promises underpinning these draft NGT proposals. Allow me – a mouthy foreigner – to put it more simply: do not drop this bomb.