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19th Sep 2021

Commission under fire for new 'deregulatory' approach to GMOs

  • The European Court of Justice argued that exempting new techniques from the current EU regulations would 'fail to respect the precautionary principle' (Photo: Masahiro Ihara)

The EU's existing legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not "fit for purpose" for new genomic techniques and needs to be adapted to contribute to sustainable food systems, a European Commission study has concluded.

Current legislation imposes a pre-market authorisation on any GMO sold to consumers, following an assessment of risks for human health and the environment. The rules also make them subject to traceability, labelling, and monitoring obligations.

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However, embedding such "rigid risk-assessment guidance" in legislation limits makes it difficult to adapt risk-assessment requirements to scientific progress, according to the 117-page study.

"With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, member states and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the EU," the EU health and food safety commissioner Stella Kyriakides said on Thursday (29 April).

In a letter to the Portuguese EU Council presidency, the EU Commission says that it "intends to initiate a policy action" on plants derived from new techniques (mutagenesis and cisgenesis) - including an impact assessment and a public consultation.

But that is seen by environmental groups as the first step to deregulate these technologies - which could mean lowering standards for risk assessment and monitoring, or even no labelling requirements.

Informed consumers

Biotech businesses argue that labelling should not apply to new GMO products which are indistinguishable from those obtained from conventional breeding.

Lobbyists have been trying to avoid an obligation to label new genomic techniques as GMOs, which some consider a 'quasi-ban' since it might lead consumers to perceive them as 'potentially dangerous'.

Nevertheless, the consumer's right to information is enshrined in EU food law and the treaties.

"This is one of the issues we want to study further in the impact assessment," an EU Commission official said, referring to labelling.

For its part, the trade association Euroseeds, representing the seed sector, said that "transparency requirements regarding compliance control and customer choice can be fulfilled in a predictable, reliable and harmonised way without putting respective conventional-like new genomic technique plant varieties under the strict and cumbersome GMO regulations".

However, a 2018 ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) underlined similarities in the potential risks between the new generation of GMOs and their predecessors. It argued that exempting new techniques from the current EU "would compromise the objective of protection" and "fail to respect the precautionary principle".

"We will do everything possible with the member states to implement the ruling of the court… but nothing prevents us from sitting back and thinking if this is the best framework that we can have for ourselves in Europe," the commission official said.

Biotech lobbying

Meanwhile, green groups have slammed the commission for bias and failing to follow the ECJ ruling, accusing them of putting at risk decades of the precautionary principle and safety checks.

A recent analysis shows most of the input (74 percent) in the stakeholder consultation which fed into this study came from agri-industry bodies - which favour the deregulation of new genome-editing techniques.

According to Mute Schimpf from NGO Friends of the Earth Europe, "the European Commission has fallen hook, line and sinker for the biotech industry's spin, and has set the future of food and farming in the EU down a dark path today".

EUobserver recently revealed how the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) uncovered new lobbying techniques aimed at deregulating new GMOs via climate-friendly narratives.

"DG SANTE [the EU Commission branch responsible for this report] has clearly listened more to the biotech lobby than to anyone else. Its study on new GMOs is yet another example of the corporate capture of EU decision-making," said Nina Holland, a researcher at CEO.

These groups have previously warned that the unintended effects of new GMOs are still unpredictable, amid concerns about the possible loss of agricultural diversity.

"GMOs by another name are still GMOs, and must be treated as such under the law," said Greenpeace.

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