Research finds over 90% of new GM plants would escape safety checks as well as traceability and labelling requirements. Report by Claire Robinson
On 7 September the GMO-Free Europe conference took place in Brussels. The conference, hosted by the Green Group in the European Parliament, brought together people from the campaigning, scientific, food retail, legal, and policymaking sectors to discuss their opposition to the European Commission's proposal to remove regulatory safeguards, traceability and labelling from new GMOs made with so-called “new genomic techniques” (NGTs) such as gene editing.
One revelation that stood out was a scientist's statement that over 90% of new GM plants would, if the Commission’s proposal is accepted, escape safety checks as well as traceability and labelling requirements (see below).
Scientists warn of risks to health, environment
Scientists Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher of Econexus in the UK and Dr Margret Engelhard (pictured right) of Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation warned that new GMOs pose risks to health and the environment that must continue to be assessed. Dr Steinbrecher pointed out that a change made to a single base pair in a gene-edited plant could make it produce a toxin. She said that when it comes to the mutations caused by new GM techniques, what is important is not the size of the mutation but where it is located and what it does. She added that research in grapevines shows that gene editing induces thousands of process-induced mutations that could affect safety.
Dr Engelhard cited research by Dr Eva Gelinsky, revealing that the vast majority – 94% – of new GMO plant applications fall into the Commission's “NGT category 1” (see image of Dr Engelhard's slide below), meaning that they would escape risk assessment for health and the environment, as well as traceability and labelling.
The consequences of this lack of oversight could be extremely serious. Dr Engelhard pointed out that new GM plants developed using RNAi gene silencing technology – for example, to kill insect pests – could also silence the genes of non-target organisms that eat them, with lethal consequences (see image of slide below). GMWatch notes that as Prof Jack Heinemann has explained in a peer-reviewed paper, these non-target organisms potentially include human and animal consumers of these GM plants.
Dr Engelhard noted the very broad spectrum of crops that are being targeted with new GM techniques and that would be deregulated under the Commission’s proposal. They range from soy and corn to potato, tomato, avocado, herbs, orange, strawberry, banana, lettuce, pea, and mustard (see image of slide below).
Commission puts politics before science
French Socialist MEP Christophe Clergeau and German Green MEP Martin Haüsling will be the shadow rapporteurs for the work of the Parliament’s environment committee on the Commission’s proposal. Clergeau told the conference participants, “We have already scored a new victory in France: We are not talking about NGTs, we are talking about new GMOs.” He added that some people in his own group disagree with him and that he will work to get scientists involved.
Clergeau accused the Commission of putting politics before science, as well as indulging in undemocratic behaviour. He asked, “Why does the Commission have the right to do everything and to do it alone?” He also criticised the Commission for failing to address the issue of patentability. GM crops and the technologies used to make them are patented, raising questions of patent owners (the big agribusiness companies) controlling access to seeds and germplasm for planting and breeding.
Precautionary principle trashed
Several speakers, including Martin Haüsling and Austrian Green MEP Sarah Wiener, accused the Commission of abandoning the precautionary principle that underpins the current GMO legislation in the EU. Martin Haüsling said that industry promises that new GM plants would reduce pesticide use and help farmers adapt to climate change “do not hold up to scrutiny”.
He also pointed out that the Commission's proposal would allow GMO developers to keep detection methods secret, allowing “agri-businesses to use undisclosed but patented products, thereby expanding their control over our food production”. He said due to the proposal's many gaps and flaws, it “must not be implemented into European law under any circumstances”.
Sarah Wiener warned that first-generation GM crops had increased herbicide use and added that the Commission’s proposal “poses a threat to organic farming as nearby GMO fields can contaminate crops”.
Luxembourg MEP Tilly Metz called the proposal to eliminate labelling requirements for an entire category of GM plants “an affront to European consumer protection”.
Euro Coop takes strong line against deregulation
Fabrizio Fabbri, food and sustainability policy manager for Euro Coop, Europe's second strongest retail force, accounting for €76 billion in annual turnover, gave a strong talk in which he called on EU legislators to avoid any deregulation of new GMОs to ensure “maximum consumer protection and information by maintaining the precautionary principle”. Euro Coop has published a position statement and evaluation of the Commission's proposal, which criticise it on the grounds that it:
* Ignores science
* Risks organic production due to the lack of traceability/monitoring
* Compromises freedom of choice of food producers and consumers, and
* Bans the right to ban — EU Member States would lose the right to ban cultivation of EU-approved GMOs on their territory.
In its position statement, Euro Coop said that new GMOs should undergo a systematic health and environmental risk assessment.
Euro Coop added, “new NGTs products on the market should be labelled in the same way as GMOs. The utilisation of a QR code system should be considered complementary to a physical label on the products. Anything less would diminish consumers’ information, protection, and confidence, as well as traceability.”
The Co-op Group, whose supermarkets we see on the UK's high streets, are members of Euro Coop, along with Cooperatives UK, which represents all the thousands of independent cooperative businesses in the country. Mr Fabbri revealed the findings of an internal consultation among its members across Europe (including the UK), which showed that Euro Coop members of all but one country were united in wanting risk assessment of new GM products and all of them without exception want traceability and labelling for these products.
Which Euro Coop country member turned its back on citizens’ demands and decided it didn’t want risk assessment of new GMOs? Unsurprisingly, it was the UK, in line with the UK government’s abandonment of regulatory safeguards in its Genetic Technology Act, which passed earlier this year. But even the UK branch of Euro Coop (the UK, according to Mr Fabbri, is suffering post-Brexit from supply chain worries and actual food shortages) stood firm with its fellow Europeans in demanding traceability and labelling.
Expert legal analysis shows major problems with deregulation proposal
Berlin-based lawyer Dr Georg Buchholz emphasised that the precautionary principle, a fundamental principle of EU law that cannot be disregarded or set aside, was nowhere mentioned in the recitals of the Commission’s proposal. He called the proposal a “violation of the precautionary principle” and suggested that as a result, any regulation that emerges from it could be void. He accused the Commission of “risk blindness” in attempting to scrap the risk assessment for new GMOs and replace it with a basic “status check”, aimed only at confirming that any given GMO fits into the Commission's Category 1 and therefore is to be exempted from safety checks, traceability and labelling. He said there was no scientific basis to assume that new GMOs pose a lower risk than older-style GMOs.
Dr Buchholz added that in the deregulation argument, the relevant comparator for new GMOs was not conventional plants, as the Commission puts forward, but older-style GMOs, which under existing law must be risk assessed and labelled. So the Commission must justify its deregulation plans for new GMOs by proving that they are less risky than older-style GMOs.
He also said that the Commission had to demonstrate the benefits it was claiming for new GMOs rather than merely asserting that they exist. And he objected to the lack of a basis in the Commission's proposal for regulatory intervention in the event that we come to realise that a given new GMO is dangerous, as well as the fact that it fails to establish liability.
Highly informed opposition to Commission's plans
Overall the conference was a welcome reminder of the strong, highly informed, and convincingly argued level of opposition to the Commission’s plans for GMO deregulation in the EU. There was broad recognition that the Commission’s proposal puts public health and the environment at risk and poses an unprecedented threat to the very existence of the organic and non-GMO food and farming sectors.