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25th Feb 2024

Organic farms, consumer rights 'at risk' in new GMO opt-outs

  • More than 300 NGOs argued the deregulation of plants produced with new genomic techniques could undermine the EU aim to achieve 25-percent organic farming by 2030 (Photo: Eric Parker)
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The European Commission is expected to unveil its new food package, including regulation on plants produced by new genomic techniques (NGT), early in July.

But leaked documents have prompted concern regarding transparency, consumer rights, and co-existence with existing GMO-free agriculture in the EU.

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Political pressure to change current rules for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have been mounting since 2018 — when the EU's top court ruled that new genomic techniques must be subject to obligations under the existing directive dealing with GMOs.

The 'precautionary approach' of the EU's existing legislation imposes a pre-market authorisation on any GMO product sold to consumers, following a risk assessment, as well as traceability, labelling, and monitoring obligations.

But a 2021 EU Commission study concluded that current legislation is no longer "fit for purpose" — especially regarding the detection of NGT products which contain no foreign genetic material.

The study suggests that while detection methods may be able to identify even small alterations in the genome, these could also be the result of conventional breeding — which makes it "difficult, and even impossible in certain cases" for those seeking authorisation to comply with the legal requirements.

In addition, complementary traceability systems do not seem to be a solution either.

This problem has triggered the deregulation of NGTs in several other non-EU countries, prompting the commission to argue that subjecting certain NGTs to the existing GMO legislation puts Europe at a competitive disadvantage.

A leak of the draft regulation on new genomic technics, obtained by ARC2020, confirmed that the EU is considering loosening requirements for plants resulting from new genomic techniques.

Shortcomings

The draft proposal builds on the categorisation of NGT plants — but it has already received criticism from the EU Commission's Regulatory Scrutiny Board, citing "significant shortcomings".

Under the draft regulation, the first category, which refers to those which "could also occur naturally or be produced by conventional breeding," would be exempt from obligations foreseen under the existing GMO legislation.

All other plants resulting from new genetic engineering will be regulated, under a more painless authorisation procedure.

Those who want to place in the EU market a 'Category 1' of NGT plants will have to notify a national authority. And a dataset of all NGT plants that have obtained a positive decision will be created by the commission.

However, only seeds, young plants and tubers will have to be labelled.

The leaked proposal is "a huge step backwards in consumer rights," said Heidi Porstner, a campaigner from Foodwatch.

The Regulatory Scrutiny Board's first opinion was negative — while the second was "positive with reservations". The board argued that the commission does not clarify how it will verify whether a product could also occur naturally or be produced by conventional breeding.

Earlier this year, more than 300 organisations wrote to the commission vice-president Frans Timmermans to prevent the deregulation of NGT, arguing that this will undermine the EU's objective of achieving 25-percent organic farming by 2030.

NGT hype?

Often, NGT plants are deemed a solution to adapt to pests or weather events, such as heatwaves and droughts, and as a way to reduce pesticides — but experts argue that this can be misleading.

"That NGT plants help 'states adapt to climate hazards' is in my view pure speculation and promotional, to get NGTs deregulated," Lars Neumeister, an expert who has been working on pesticide issues since 1998, told EUobserver.

Large companies, which dominate both the biotech seed and pesticide markets, are "profit-oriented" and "do not have the well-being of the planet in mind," he warned, pointing out that things researched in laboratories do not translate per se into actual implementation.

Practices such as regenerative soil management, crop rotation, and nitrogen reduction are important measures for preventing pesticide use, he wrote in a report.

Neumeister has long advocated for a pesticide tax to reduce its consumption, arguing that all previous attempts to reduce pesticide use in Europe have failed — except in Denmark, where a tax is in place.

With the exception of GMOs, Europe has copied agricultural practices from the US "to be competitive" but this has brought "devastating consequences," he added. "To believe that NGTs will be an exception is naïve".

The commission proposal has faced intense lobbying during the last few years. Following a complaint by advocacy groups, the EU ombudsman has opened an enquiry into the commission department responsible for the consultation process of this file (DG SANTE).

Deregulation of new GMO crops: science or business?

Academics and biotech research organisations with corporate interests have been leading the lobby campaign to deregulate new genomic techniques in the EU — using 'climate-friendly' and 'science-based' narratives, according to a report.

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