Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis ignores scientific evidence and technical facts to lobby for EU's GMO legislation to be weakened in line with industry's wishes
In an extraordinary move, the European Commissioner for Health Vytenis Andriukaitis has taken a stand against the judgment of the EU Court of Justice on "new GM" techniques. The court had ruled that GMOs produced using certain "new GM" techniques fall under the EU's GMO legislation and thus require safety checks and labelling. But Andriukaitis wants the legislation to be relaxed to allow these new GMOs easier market access.
The French civil society group Inf'OGM has published a commentary (in French) on Andriukaitis's statement, which, according to the group, says much about the state of the current debate and the rising power of the pro-GMO lobbies in opposing the judgment. The account below uses Inf'OGM's article as its main source.
In the headline of an article in the French edition of the newspaper Euractiv, Andriukaitis's statement was wrongly presented as representing the official position of the Commission. The headline translates as, "The Commission wants rules on new GMOs" and not "The Commissioner..."
In reality, this is not a position taken by the European Commission but is only the point of view of a commissioner at the end of his term, which does not commit him – or his replacement – to apply it. Incidentally, Euractiv is funded in part by the European Union and the extremely pro-GMO Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In July 2018, the EU Court of Justice said that plants obtained by certain new genetic engineering methods (described in the case as mutagenesis but referring to new "gene editing" techniques) were genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and that GMOs were not restricted to only plants developed using older-style "transgenic" GM techniques. The ruling acknowledged that methods using older chemical- and radiation-induced mutagenesis were exempted from the GMO legislation but pointed out that this was due to their history of safe use – a history that new GM techniques do not have.
The ruling clearly restricted the exempted mutagenesis techniques to methods with a history of safe use. It also affirmed that products resulting from the new mutagenesis techniques are GMOs, carried similar risks, and must be regulated like older-style transgenic GMOs.
GMO industry offensive
The decision should have been welcomed by all as bringing transparency to the methods for obtaining new varieties from new GM techniques. But such transparency seemed to enrage the industry. Since the summer of 2018, it has not ceased to denigrate this judgment, to spread lies about it, and to try to negotiate a new legislative framework with the Commission.
Dana Bolden, vice president of Dow DuPont's agriculture department, said recently that her clients "do not understand the judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), ruling that organisms stemming from the new techniques of plants fall into the category of GMOs".
Health Commissioner Andriukaitis aligned himself with the industry stance, proposing on March 27, 2018 that the EU cave into industry's demands: "From my point of view, we need a new legal regulatory framework for these new techniques," after the European elections in May.
It appears that the industry does not want its second generation GMOs to be evaluated and labelled, because it fears that consumers and farmers will not accept these products.
In particular, says Inf'OGM, the industry does not want to be forced by the GMO regulations to provide the DNA sequence of the genetic modification in combination with the detection method that will enable others to identify its invention (these are current requirements of the GMO regulations). The lack of such information in the public domain would enable the industry to claim ownership of non-GMO plants and varieties developed by competitors that may have the same genetic sequence as that claimed in the patent. Clearly this would be extremely detrimental to the interests of the public and farmers alike.
Andriukaitis's speech deconstructed
Inf'OGM deconstructs the Euractiv article and Andriukaitis's speech. The Euractiv article begins with a lie. It claims that these new techniques are genetic engineering, but unlike GMOs, they do not add additional genetic elements to plants. However, the definition of a GMO does not make any reference to the addition of foreign genes, either in European or international regulations as defined by the Cartagena Protocol. To say that a GMO is an organism in which an additional genetic element has been added misrepresents the law currently in force – and that's a serious "mistake" for a European Commissioner who is responsible for enforcing it.
The article quotes Andriukaitis as stating that the GMO Directive was written 20 years ago and is therefore not adapted to current technological progress. But what progress is he talking about? These techniques produce GMOs. Their risks and societal issues, such as patents, remain the same. And Inf'OGM has already documented (in French) that the various steps of the genetic modification procedure result in off-target effects.
"No one has died from eating GMOs" – really?
In addition, the Commissioner echoes the discourse parroted by the industry since the end of the 1990s, which states that one can not attribute a single death to the consumption of GMOs: "Tell me how many people have died because of GMOs? Do you have statistics? How many people died after eating the meat of animals fed GMOs? Nobody, but there is a lot of manipulation."
But this is not a scientific argument, even if it pretends to be. The data are not there that could prove or disprove it. The lack of evidence published in a peer-reviewed journal has never been evidence of absence. Many apparent effects involving farm animals consuming GMOs have been reported in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe, but no official expert committees have condescended to investigate them. And the scientific controversies concerning the effects of GMOs on laboratory animals have often made headlines, from Arpad Pusztai to Gilles-Eric Séralini – and those controversies are far from closed.
Problems with GMOs in animal feeding studies
GMWatch adds that there are many animal feeding studies showing problems with GMOs. Some of these are summarised in the book, GMO Myths and Truths, authored by two genetic engineers with GMWatch editor Claire Robinson, as well as in various peer-reviewed papers.
For example, the GMO90+ study showed that the GM maize diet caused an decrease in the total serum protein concentration and pancreas weight and an increase in blood glucose levels. The authors dismissed these effects, without justification, as not toxicologically relevant.
And in the long-term G-TwYST study, male rats fed GM maize sprayed with Roundup were significantly more likely to die of pituitary tumours before the end of the experiment than control rats fed non-GM maize. This alarming fact was universally ignored by the mainstream media, as far as GMWatch can tell.
In addition, there are the deaths and sicknesses that occurred in Americans who consumed a food supplement, l-tryptophan, made with GM bacteria that produced an unexpected toxic substance that persisted in the final marketed product. Attempts to shift the blame onto a faulty purification process fail to explain how the impurity got into the l-tryptophan in the first place. The only explanation that makes sense is that the GM process caused unexpected changes in the bacteria that led them to produce the novel toxin.
Bt eggplant lies
Returning to Andriukaitis, in a statement that seems completely written by the industry, he rejects the allegations that the new techniques are the preserve of large multinationals, citing the example of farmers in Bangladesh who used them in growing an eggplant to reduce their use of pesticides. But this famous transgenic Bt eggplant is only a GMO "figleaf", in the terminology of Inf'OGM. Grown on a few hundred hectares, it is no match for the GM soybeans and other field crops modified to tolerate herbicide sprays that are widely recognized to have caused damage to health and the environment. But reports from within Bangladesh published by GMWatch say it has been a widespread failure.
And this Bt eggplant remains very much an industry product. It was distributed "under license" by Mahyco, an Indian company linked to Monsanto, to several public research centres in India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Inf'OGM says it is impossible to obtain access to all the contracts between the centres and the industry. The only contract that Inf'OGM has managed to obtain states that no communication can be made to the press without the "written consent" of the other contractors. Inf'OGM comments that this "says a lot about the desire for transparency of this industry".
In the Euractiv article, Andriukaitis defames opponents of GM crops and foods as manipulators who ignore science. “Public opinion’s manipulation is a very dangerous issue… The level of understanding of such issues is very low, but scaremongering in Europe is very high."
However, Inf'OGM comments that this statement is in itself a manipulation: "To say that an opponent manipulates public opinion and that the 'people' do not understand anything is an authoritarian tactic that is particularly tired. It looks like a provocation on the part of a Commissioner who defends, in the name of protecting industry secrets, an absence of a minimum of the transparency that would allow the public to build its own opinion. It amounts to saying that the public, being deprived of the necessary information, must believe the word the 'experts', who alone have access to that information."
Listen to science – but whose?
Andriukaitis told Euractiv that Europe must listen to science. But according to Inf'OGM, it remains to be seen who practices sound science: the experts of the European Food Safety Agency (some of whom have been caught hiding conflicts of interest) or the experts of the French food safety agency ANSES, who on several occasions have underlined the lack of scientific rigour of GMO authorization dossiers.
Being at the end of his term, Commissioner Andriukaitis knows that he will not have to face the consequences of his remarks, which massively exceed his mandate. He confirmed this by stating that he would not take any initiative on this subject himself and that it would be up to the next Commissioner to decide whether or not to take it. Is his goal to influence this future decision, or simply to portray himself as a defender of the industry – thus facilitating the advancement of his personal career?
Main source: Christophe Noisette, "L’arrêt de la Cour européenne sur les 'nouveaux OGM' attaqué". Inf'OGM, 1 April 2019.
Image of Vytenis Andriukaitis by Europa Pont: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)