Discussion around new GMOs should be chance to ask uncomfortable questions about research and innovation, not sneer at non-GMO-believers, say professors
In the article below from the Belgian press, four professors (from schools of law, philosophy of science, and bioengineering) warn that Brexit shouldn't be a reason for deregulating new GMOs.
They make a number of extremely important points. Among them, that the driving force behind deregulation in Britain and parts of Europe – they focus on Belgium – is not really the issues that are flagged up (the hype about silver-bullet solutions to agricultural problems), but the lobbying power of Big Ag, together with an obsession at the national level with competitive advantage.
This is certainly the case in Britain where Boris Johnson flagged this up in his very first speech as Prime Minister.
“Let’s liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-GM rules,” came first in the the speech, followed immediately by the hype, “Let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”
Why “blight-resistant crops” specifically? Almost certainly because the UK’s leading plant biotech institute, the Sainsbury Laboratory of the John Innes Centre, has had a significant focus on GM blight-resistant potatoes for some years yet has been frustrated by the poor likelihood of commercialisation because of EU rules. So the Prime Minister has been told that this is an area of UK competitive advantage, even though non-GM blight resistant potatoes are available and perform just as well.
And the authors of the article below report an exactly similar line of thinking among Belgian politicians:
“From the discussions in the Flemish Parliament on CRISPR-Cas last year, it is very clear that the reasons to support these techniques are mainly about this issue: Flanders must ‘compete at world level in plant breeding research’.
"Thus, Minister Crevits stated that European regulation ‘could have a negative influence on investments in this field of research in which Flanders is a world leader’. N-VA [New Flemish Alliance, a conservative political party] also talks about ‘being in the lead’ and ‘being a world player’. Vlaams Belang [Flemish nationalist, right-wing populist political party] emphasises that the party did have problems with GMOs in the past, but now wants to support them since Flanders is among the world leaders in this field.”
The fear that the biotech train is leaving the station and countries may get left behind is something the biotech industry and its political supporters have always played on.
And this outlook reflects decades of neoliberalism and the pushing of the commercial imperative in science. As Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley, said over two decades ago, “The problem is that research at public institutions increasingly reflects the interests of private funders at the expense of public good research, such as biological control, organic production systems and general agroecological techniques. Civil society must demand a response of who the university and other public organizations are to serve and request more research on alternatives to [GMO] biotechnology.”
Or as the authors put it here, instead of just dismissing GMO sceptics, shouldn’t the discussion around gene editing be exploring uncomfortable questions – questions not only specifically about gene editing, but also more fundamentally about the aims of research, innovation and development? For instance, who decides what is developed? Who benefits from it? At what cost? Do the proposals promote biodiversity and equity or rather the privatisation of life? Do they improve the quality of life of the majority of people? Or do they transform farmers into passive consumers of innovation, research and technology? How do these decisions relate to issues of respect, responsibility and human rights? What are the alternatives?
As they say, “Rather than producing the ‘potatoes of the future’”, it seems high time society considered the whole issue of the agriculture of the future. In other words, what kind of future do we want to shape through our choices of farming?
'No sooner had Brexit been approved, than the GMO lobby shifted up a few gears'
Serge Gutwirth, Niels Van Dijk, Isabelle Stengers, and Marjolein Visser
Knack, 15 Jan 2021
[Unofficial English translation by Google/GMWatch of Dutch language article. A French version of the article is also available here]
* 'Brexit must not be a reason to liberalise new plant modification techniques,' write four professors from the VUB) and ULB [two universities in Belgium: Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Université libre de Bruxelles]. 'It is time to ask some uncomfortable questions about research, innovation and development.'
It was to be expected. Brexit had barely been got out of the way before the lobby for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) shifted up a few gears. Even the combination of the COVID crisis and Trump's failed coup d'état have not prevented the English press from suddenly taking notice of the resuscitation of the demand by the agricultural giants and their allies to exempt the latest techniques of genetic manipulation from the obligations laid down in European law on the subject, in particular in Directive 2001/18 of 12 March 2001 on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms.
For the proponents of the liberalisation of organisms developed using new plant modification techniques (NPMTs), including the much-discussed CRISPR gene editing, the detachment of English law from the EU is, of course, a great opportunity to rekindle a lost battle for market control in the EU. It is clear that the temptation for a sector of British politics (in Wales and Scotland other voices are heard) to join the camp of NMPT-friendly legal systems, such as that of the USA, has great strategic weight that will also weigh on the relevant decision-making in the EU. In this article we outline the situation and argue for a full enforcement and even a strengthening of EU law on the matter, notwithstanding the continued high pressure that the agrochemical industry and its cohort of 'expert lobbyists' are already exerting on European policy makers.
This new push for the liberalisation and deregulation of the production and distribution of NPMT-derived organisms and food is not surprising, precisely because the Court of Justice of the EU brought clarity and legal certainty to the applicable legal regime. In the EU, the regulation of GMOs continues to apply, of course, even if the techniques used for their modification are evolving or new. Of course, even before Brexit was completed, the aforementioned ruling and its consequences in the EU were anything but satisfactory to stakeholders in and around the agro-industry, and so we already know what is in store for us.
In the Confédération Paysanne case (C-528/16, 28 July 2018), a number of questions had been put to the European Court of Justice concerning the legal status of organisms produced by mutagenesis and, more specifically, using those NMTPs. The Court saw no reason to exempt the new techniques developed after the relevant EU Directive 2001/18 from the existing regulations. According to that Directive, a genetically modified organism is an organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Legal exemptions do exist, but these are always based on knowledge and experience indicating a "history of safe use", and thus a use without risks to health and the environment, the Court said.
Of course, this is not the case for NMTPs such as CRISPR, not only because these techniques are relatively new, but also because they have not, to date, undergone the evaluations provided for in the Directive. The Court rightly added that such techniques also make it possible to produce GMOs at a speed and in quantities far beyond what was possible and conceivable in 2001. Such organisms can reproduce and cross borders, with irreversible consequences. In its decision, the Court therefore takes the precautionary principle seriously.
In our constitutional states, the power to decide on such matters belongs exclusively to the judiciary; that is called 'balance of powers', or checks and balances. In short, when it comes to the legal status of genetically modified plants in the EU, the final word lies with the Court of Justice, whose decisions are binding on all courts in the Member States that are dealing with the same problems. And since the ruling of 28 July 2018, there is no ambiguity at all: NMTPs do generate GMOs within the meaning of the Directive (and its derived legislation) and should be subject to its conditions and procedures. National states must implement compliance with the consequences of the judgment, both with regard to the future and with regard to what is askew today. And that means that not only rules, decisions and measures that contradict the ruling, but also existing field trials with crops produced by NMTPs are against the law and must be withdrawn or stopped, unless they are regularised through the appropriate procedures.
Needless to say, judges do not judge freely; they are bound by the strict constraints of legal practice. Their decisions are accepted in principle precisely because judges act independently and impartially under the authority of the relevant legal sources, with the law at the forefront. The non-argument heard ad nauseam that the ECJ's judgment "is not scientific" is therefore simply beside the point: the judgments of judicial bodies must be legally correct. For example, the rules of evidence were created precisely so that the scientist would not sit in the judge's chair, so that they could make their own legal judgement on the facts established. If judgments of judges were to be scientific, we would have to let scientists watch over the judiciary, right?
Of course, judicial decisions have consequences that penetrate far into the fabric of society. If the tenor of these judgements is to be changed, the content of the legislation must be changed and, consequently, shooting the judge is completely useless and superfluous, for the judge cannot change the law. In my opinion, the ECJ has simply made a correct legal determination, in the light of the ratio legis [reason for the law] of the Directive: exercising precaution with GMOs, so that negative effects are not simply externalised to our health and the environment.
This brings us to politics, because the latter can only amend the law if the necessary majorities can be found. That is what the GMO lobby is now hoping to persuade the British Government to do. This is problematic, however, because the principle of representation stops at innovation, precisely because it usually raises new problems that did not exist before the election and therefore requires more active forms of participation, especially for those who are affected and concerned and express their involvement. The massive lobbying strategy pursued by GMO advocates in the many branches of the EU, and now especially in Great Britain, makes a mockery of the fact that GMOs concern us all, and our children and grandchildren the most. In this way, the public is kept neatly out of the loop.
Experience with serious citizen participation (in the UK, for example) has clearly shown that very serious and constructive exchanges on GMOs are possible and produce interesting results. But lobbying, as the industry knows all too well, is much easier. Especially when it comes to forcibly reopening a discussion that ended at the end of the last century, by claiming that new genetic modification techniques, as opposed to older ones, would not ... genetically modify. Moreover, it seems likely that the "old" techniques will soon make way for the "new" ones, which would completely erode the existing regime still in force in the EU and in the UK.
The periodically flaring debates reveal, above all, disagreements and conflicts of interest among policy-makers, business lobbyists, NGOs and scientists on the nature and legitimacy of the precautionary principle enshrined in the EU's basic texts. Precaution is accused of being irrational and of slowing down, stifling or banning innovation. It seems to us, rather, that refusing to look ahead and face the consequences of our actions is the irrational, or at least irresponsible, attitude here.
The precautionary principle is often seen in contrast to a 'science-based' risk assessment. In reality, the principle is a framework for political decision-making that guides innovation to prevent and anticipate harm as much as possible. It should avoid repeating examples such as lead in petrol, PCE contamination, DDT, bisphenol A or the tobacco industry's manipulation of science. All these examples have in common that the risk levels were initially underestimated. Instead of a product-oriented or 'fait accompli' approach, the application of the precautionary principle creates the time and space to explore different options in advance – even solutions that are radically different. Of course, it is also a political endeavour, because, after all, it is up to all of us to decide which (also still unknown) risks we are willing to take as a society, but also as earth-dwellers.
At present, moreover, the precautionary principle is being interpreted too narrowly, by assessing only risks to health or the environment, without considering the broader socio-economic consequences and the political nature of the choices to be made or not to be made. Turning on the GMO tap will, of course, have enormous consequences for the future of agriculture and food. After all, the considerations that need to be made do not relate solely to environmental and health safety. Indeed, what GMO advocates and opponents mainly and profoundly disagree about is precisely the kind of agriculture we want for the future. That is the point.
On the one hand, we hear voices in favour of a high-tech and patent-driven industrial push for monoculture agriculture controlled by (the shareholders of) monopolistic agrochemical transnational corporations, which offer no guarantee of meeting the right to food, and which will further lead to the destruction and disappearance of countless seeds and diversified agricultural techniques that are now in the hands of the main food-producing actors: farmers, especially women, all over the world. On the other hand, there is the further exploration and stimulation of local forms of agroecology that can guarantee food security thanks to the embedding of agriculture in the local bio-cultural ecology, the diversity of seeds, techniques, experiences and their mutual fertilisation and exchange. For us, the choice is not difficult.
We should not be fooled. Our leaders are not concerned with this issue, but rather with the problem of competitiveness. From the discussions in the Flemish Parliament on CRISPR-Cas last year, it is very clear that the reasons to support these techniques are mainly about this issue: Flanders must "compete at world level in plant breeding research".
Thus, Minister Crevits stated that European regulation "could have a negative influence on investments in this field of research in which Flanders is a world leader". N-VA [New Flemish Alliance, a conservative political party] also talks about "being in the lead" and "being a world player". Vlaams Belang [Flemish nationalist, right-wing populist political party] emphasises that the party did have problems with GMOs in the past, but now wants to support them since Flanders is among the world leaders in this field. Open VLD [Flemish conservative-liberal political party] thinks that the ruling of the ECJ is a bad thing for academic research and innovation in the agricultural sector in Flanders. It will not surprise anyone that these kinds of arguments are also rampant in today's Great Britain and try to influence the choice that the British government can now make outside the EU.
So the debate is coming up again, first in the UK, but it will soon have repercussions in the EU. From this perspective, we ask the GMO experts, including those from and linked to the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, which in this debate is turning out to be a pro-GMO lookout platform rather than a serious scientific institution, to nuance their position (if only because it is partly funded with our tax dollars).
Instead of ridiculing and scorning the voices of non-GMO believers, the discussion around the new GMOs may be just the thing to ask uncomfortable questions, not only about NPMTs, but also about research, innovation and development. Who decides what is developed? Who benefits from it? At the expense of what? Do the proposed decisions promote biodiversity and equity or rather the privatisation of life? Do they improve the quality of life of the majority? Do they transform farmers into the passive role of consumers of innovation, research and technology? How do these decisions relate to values such as reciprocity, respect, responsibility and, yes, human rights? What are the alternatives? Shouldn't we be thinking about that very thing? Rather than producing the 'potatoes of the future', it seems high time to work on the agriculture of the future.
Serge Gutwirth and Niels van Dijk are professors of law, attached to the research group Law, Science, Technology & Society of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Together they wrote an article about NPMTs in English, which will soon appear in a Dutch translation in the next issue of Tijdschrift voor Milieubeheer.
Isabelle Stengers is emeritus professor of philosophy of science at ULB.
Marjolein Visser is professor at the ULB School of bioengineering, chair of agroecology.