GM insects in food, environment: European Ombudsman investigates conflicts-of-interest at EU regulator
GeneWatch UK, 26 March 2013
GeneWatch UK today called for the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) to suspend the adoption of new rules for the release of genetically modified (GM) animals into the environment while European Ombudsman completes an investigation into the European regulator [1,2]. The investigation follows a complaint by GeneWatch UK about conflicts-of-interest on the EFSA's Working Group on genetically modified (GM) insects, and EFSA's failure to consult on the risks of allowing GM insects to enter the food chain.
The investigation, which has just been launched by the European Ombudsman, is into Guidance due to be adopted at EFSA's next meeting on 17-18th April which covers the risk assessment of GM animals, including GM insects, fish, birds, pets, and farm animals . EFSA have been given until 30th June to respond to the complaint.
"Public trust will be further eroded if EFSA pushes through new guidance for the release of GM insects with back-door pressure from commercial interests", said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK "Genetically modified insects are risky new technologies which require in-depth consideration of the effects on the environment and on the food chain and open public consultation".
EFSA's Working Group on GM Insects, which helped to develop the proposed rules, includes a researcher at Oxford University who is being funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to work with UK company Oxitec on developing GM insect regulations. Oxford University is an investor in the company and would profit if commercial releases of GM insects were to be approved. At least four other members of the Working Group have current or past links with Oxitec, having worked on joint research projects or co-authored papers, and two further members work for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s programme on the use of GM insects.
Oxitec has released millions of GM mosquitoes in experiments in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil and is developing GM agricultural pests, including GM olive flies, fruit flies, cabbage moths and bollworms (a cotton pest). Most of Oxitec's senior staff, some Board members (including its Chair) and consultants have worked for multi-national agriculture company Syngenta, which has funded some of its research.
Oxitec's GM agricultural pests are genetically engineered so most of the female offspring die as caterpillars. GM male insects are intended to be released in large numbers in farmers' fields so they out-number wild pests by a factor of ten to one or more. When the GM males mate with wild females, the poor survival rate of female offspring is intended to suppress the insect pest population. If population suppression is successful, there may be complex effects on other species such birds or bats, or increases in other types of pest. Many dead GM insects and some live ones could enter the food chain in vegetables or fruit, but this issue was omitted from the consultation.
"People will be surprised to learn that the public consultation held by EFSA last year made no mention of the large number of dead GM caterpillars that could end up in the food chain if Oxitec's technology is used" said Dr Wallace. "Some GM insects are also likely to survive and be transported inside vegetables and fruit. Retailers, farmers and the general public are entitled to have a say about the use of GM insects in food production and to be given a comprehensive picture of the consequences."
The draft Guidance also covers risk assessment of GM fish, including GM salmon produced by the US company AquaBounty, which is currently being considered for release on the US market. The production of GM mammals, such as pets and farm animals, is widely opposed on animal welfare grounds. Researchers are also investigating genetically engineering other properties into GM insects in the future, such as GM pesticide-resistant bees, and these would also be covered by the guidance.
EFSA's guidance is intended to inform commercial manufacturers of GM animals how complex effects on the environment and human health will be assessed before open releases into the environment of GM insects and other animals will be allowed in the EU. There has been no involvement of the European Parliament in the decision to develop risk assessment guidance for GM animals and there are other major problems with the Guidance which are not part of GeneWatch UK's complaint to the Ombudsman, including an attempt to re-define the risk assessment process to include benefits as well as risks (4). All these issues need to be resolved in an open and transparent process before rules on the release of GM animals are finalised.
For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace: 01298-24300 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile)
Notes for Editors
(1) The GeneWatch UK complaint (346/2013/ANA) is available on: http://tinyurl.com/bumtfvd
(2) The European Ombudsman has asked EFSA to submit an opinion on the following allegations and claims by 30th June 2013:
1. EFSA failed adequately to address the conflict of interest issues raised with respect to certain members of the Working Group on Genetically Modified Insects.
2. EFSA failed properly to address the issue of ingestion of Genetically Modified Insects in its draft Guidance document for Environmental Risk Assessment on Genetically Modified Animals which it issued for consultation in June 2012.
1. EFSA should reconstitute the Working Group on Genetically Modified Insects and, in doing so, it should ensure that no members are biased or have a conflict of interest.
2. EFSA should duly take into account the issue of ingestion of Genetically Modified Insects when drawing up its Guidance document for Environmental Risk Assessment on Genetically Modified Animals.
(3) The GM animals guidance is on the agenda for possible adoption at the 81st plenary meeting of EFSA's GMO Panel in Parma, Italy, 17-18 April 2013: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/events/event/130417.htm
GeneWatch UK's response to EFSA's consultation on the guidance is available on: http://tinyurl.com/ccdpmmd