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26th Nov 2022

Revealed: the new lobbying effort to deregulate GMOs

  • Most of the input (74 percent) to the EU review comes from agri-industry bodies, who favour the deregulation of new genome-editing techniques (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Political pressure aimed at deregulating the new generation of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) has been mounting in the EU since 2018 - when the European Court of Justice ruled that these new techniques still fall under the current framework dealing with genetic-engineering products.

New genetic technologies allow speeding up plant-breeding, increasing yields and improving their tolerance to diseases or environmental changes.

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However, given that these techniques have not yet shown a sustained safety record, they cannot be exempted from the rules that apply to GMOs, the EU's top court concluded in 2018.

In 2019, member states asked the European Commission to prepare a study covering legal uncertainties for new genomic techniques, and policy options, under EU law.

This paper, expected to be published before the end of April, is based on consultations with member states and other interested parties.

Skewed input

However, a recent analysis shows that most of the input (74 percent) comes from agri-industry bodies, who favour the deregulation of new genome-editing techniques.

Moreover, the consultation included twice as many questions about the potential benefits of new GMOs as those about potential risks.

Meanwhile, the EU executive has avoided publishing responses to the consultation in advance of its publication - what has triggered outrage from green groups.

"The European Commission promised a strategy sustainable food system with its Farm to Fork strategy, but it seems to be trying to let in a new generation of genetically-modified crops onto our fields and plates without safety checks and labelling," said Mute Schimpf from Brussels-based NGO Friends of the Earth Europe.

EU current legislation imposes a pre-market authorisation for any GMO to be placed on the market, following an assessment of the risks they may present for human health and the environment. The rules also make them subject to traceability, labelling and monitoring obligations.

However, lobbyists have been trying to get new GMOs techniques (also called gene-editing or CRISPR) deregulated, which would lower the standards for risk-assessment, monitoring or labelling requirements.

A new investigation by the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), published on Monday (29 March), has uncovered how fresh lobbying strategies aimed at deregulating modern genetic techniques are driven by various academic and biotech research institutes with corporate interests - using 'climate-friendly' narratives.

Nina Holland, a researcher at CEO warned: "We should be extremely wary of the biotech industry's attempts to hype genome editing products as 'green' and 'climate-friendly'."

For example, the lobby platform EU-SAGE, founded by the Flemish Biotech Institute (VIB), recently published a sign-on letter calling for a change in the EU GMO directive, claiming that it was signed by "over 129 research institutes".

However, according to CEO analysis, in many cases, it is individual biotech researchers who sign these letters - not the institute that employs them.

In May 2020, a Belgian university demanded SAGE remove their logo from the letter, saying its use without consent was "illegal".

In its letter, the lobbying group warned that if the EU applies strict legislation to these new techniques, "European farmers will miss out on a new generation of hardier and more nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to the results of climate change".

Greenwashing

Meanwhile, the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), which represents academics and research institutes, has arranged a series of meetings with national lawmakers on gene-editing deregulation.

The documents show that countries which had shown an openness to the deregulation of new GMOs were invited to these meetings.

In January, a dozen countries were invited to meet EPSO representatives - namely, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Lithuania and Portugal.

"EPSO offers to collaborate with policymakers to develop appropriate future-ready regulations that…contribute…to food and nutritional security and to [the] use all available tools to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture," according to a document from the organisation.

Another meeting, scheduled for May, will focus on the upcoming commission study.

Meanwhile, green groups have warned that the unintended effects of new GMOs are unpredictable.

"While these new techniques are more precise, the entire process still involves many random events whose results cannot be predicted," warned Schimpf.

"This unpredictability was one of the main arguments for the strict regulation originally introduced for GMOs and this risk remains with the[ir] new generation," she added.

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