Sunday

9th May 2021

Opinion

Is Hogan about to let Trump's GM exports into EU?

  • Current standards of risk assessment are not sufficient to determine the safety of genetically engineered organisms (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Five years after the public outcry against lowering EU standards via the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTP) culminated in a petition signed by more than three million EU citizens, the new EU Commission is giving it another try.

By 18 March, trade commissioner Phil Hogan wants to sign a deal with the Trump administration which, to add a bit of spice, includes fast-tracking GMO imports in an attempt to please the US farming industry.

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  • Ireland's EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan (Photo: European Commission)

At the same time, the commission is downplaying work by independent scientists highlighting major gaps in current risk assessment procedures for genetically engineered (GE) plants.

Will the Green Deal take account of the environmental and health risks of GE organisms?

The research project RAGES recently showed that EU assessment & management of GE plants has failed to sufficiently deal with the risks to public health and the environment.

The main finding of the project which was carried out 100 percent independently from the biotech industry: the current GMO approval process does not take all relevant risks into account.

Instead it mostly confines its focus to those risks that can be most easily assessed.

Consequently, current standards of risk assessment are not sufficient to determine the safety of genetically engineered organisms.

They fail to fulfil legal requirements to apply the "highest possible standard" to "any risks which they present".

A good example are herbicide-resistant GE soybeans imported into the EU as animal feed.

When grown in field trials that form part of EU risk assessment, soybeans were sprayed only once with around 1kg of glyphosate per hectare.

In practice, however, US, Brazilian and Argentinian farmers spray them two or three times, using 3-4kg per hectare and more of the weed-killer.

Unrealistic samples

Consequently, EU risk assessment systematically underestimates the soybeans' risks, since it uses unrealistic and irrelevant test samples.

Moreover, when test plants are grown specifically for use in toxicological feeding studies, they are in some cases sprayed with even lower doses.

Plants with a combination of GE characteristics, such as resistance to several herbicides, are not even tested in feeding studies at all.

These problems cannot be solved by just referring to pesticide law. There are many specific risks that have to be covered within the GMO risk assessment.

Shortcomings in risk assessment will not disappear just because they have been evident for some time.

Neither the EU Commission nor the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or the biotech industry ever produced a detailed analysis refuting these and additional scientific findings. Quite to the contrary.

When confronted with the RAGES results, the EFSA and commission simply defended the status quo by claiming that the project had not found anything new.

However, this is missing the point. It is not surprising that the institutions are already aware of deficiencies in the current practice.

Experts from member states, the European Parliament and scientists have for many years tried to make EFSA and the commission acknowledge these issues.

We should all agree that risks, problems and shortcomings in risk assessment will not disappear just because they have been evident for some time.

On the contrary, these problems need urgent solutions.

The commission has now mandated EFSA to look at 'new scientific information' brought up by the RAGES project. However, much of the evidence is not 'new', but describes long-standing problems.

We fear that EFSA will just repeat its old defence strategy, saying something along the lines of 'We have previously neglected the problem, so no reason to worry.'

However, burying one's head in the sand does not solve problems. In recent years, the blatant shortcomings of risk assessments have not only been ignored, but even reinforced by trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.

The EU's Green Deal must not remain silent about the risks of GMOs.

One of the promises of the Green Deal is to increase transparency and consumer information, as well as to reduce the environmental & climate footprint of EU agriculture and food systems.

Whilst the Green Deal includes urgently needed action on a number of environmental issues, planned action on GMOs is far from satisfactory.

'Precautionary principle' threatened

Here, the commission continues to downplay scientific criticisms on risks, and is instead pushing ahead with fast-tracking import approvals to please the Trump administration.

However, a rigid time frame of two years for the approval process is not appropriate if the complex risks of genetically engineered plants have to be assessed in detail.

This threatens the precautionary principle as a foundation of EU policy-making and contradicts the commission's overall goal of strengthening the protection of public health and the environment.

For the moment, the only action likely to be proposed in the Green Deal is to carry out a study on new genomic techniques (or second generation genetic engineering) such as Crispr.

This may result in a proposal for deregulating these techniques, excluding them from obligations such as GMO risk assessment, consumer labelling and post-market monitoring.

Several leaks of the Farm-to-Fork strategy that is to be presented by the end of this month underscore the supposed potential of these techniques – while remaining silent about their risks.

On the other hand, no concrete action on improving the risk assessment of first generation GE plants has been included in the deal so far.

Given the long-standing evidence cited above, a re-evaluation of current market approvals should be included, assessing their overall and combinatorial impact on the food and feed chain as well as on the environment.

To sum up, the EU must not yield to the aggressive pro-GE and anti-agroecology crusade the Trump administration has set its sails on.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen should stick to her promises and apply the precautionary principle to both first and second generation GE organisms, to safeguard environment, health and consumer information.

This must include getting serious about risk assessment of GE organisms as part of the Green Deal, as well as ensuring second generation genetic engineering remains regulated under current legislation.

Author bio

Astrid Österreicher is EU policy advisor for Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology (Testbiotech) in Munich. Testbiotech provides information and scientific expertise on risks associated with gene technologies, completely independent of the biotech industry.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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