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CRISPR & Co: EU Commission wants to make new genetic engineering acceptable

The speakers at the event "GMO-free Europe 2022" on 17 November 2022 in the European Parliament were very united and clearly formulated that the proposals on New Genetic Engineering must be prevented. Because clear GMO labelling and thus freedom of choice must be maintained. The organisers, IFOAM Organics Europe, The Greens/EFA in the EU Parliament and the Save our Seeds organisation had invited numerous speakers from science, business and politics who presented their findings and critical assessments of the NGTs. A representative of the EU Commission's DG Sante presented the main features and status quo of the deregulation of the existing genetic engineering legislation.

Conference for a GMO-free Europe in the EU-Parliament

The choice must remain

In his welcome address, host and Green MEP Martin Häusling stressed the importance of the conference: "We have to be prepared next spring when the Commission wants to present its proposals for the deregulation of the GMO legislation."

As reported, it is to be feared that the amended EU legislation on new genome technologies (NGTs) will weaken the current genetic engineering law, repeal the precautionary principle, risk assessment and labelling for NGTs, which would de facto remove the freedom of choice for products from seeds to food on the shelf containing "new genetic engineering".

In its Berlin Declaration 2018, the 9th Conference of GMO-free Regions stated: We want to emphasize that – in line with the ruling by the European Court of Justice – the regulation of all GMOs and methods for genetic engineering are subject to precautionary risk assessment and transparent approval procedures as well as labelling and traceability obligations under GMO legislation.

NGTs perform poorly against best agroecological practices

Dr Eva Gelinsky, a member of the Swiss Ethics Committee on Biotechnology, explained in her speech that genetic engineering does not offer solutions for the much-needed solutions against the devastating effects of climate change on agriculture. Plant traits such as drought resistance are so complexly anchored in the plant DNA that even NGTs could offer solutions in the short to medium term. Existing agroecological approaches such as heterogeneous plant populations and mixed cultures would be more promising. This is also the result of a recent report by the Swiss Ethics Committee. Martin Häusling comments: "It is a fairy tale that we will get pest-resistant or climate-resilient plants via genetic engineering, the genetic system is too complex for that“.

Scientists agree on high risk potential of NGTs

Dr Christoph Then (photo), Testbiotech, cited drastic examples from practical applications with NGTs, where negative effects of the gene-modified measures on health and the environment are simply overlooked. The genetic engineering lobby even claimed that new genetic engineering was quasi-natural. Nevertheless, hundreds of patents on these modifications would be applied for. This is a clear contradiction in the argumentation and exposes the intentions.

Dr. Margret Engelhard from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) also explained the complexity of the system and emphasised its rapid development. There is a lot of experimentation: "CRISPR Cas is not just CRISPR Cas". And further, she warned: "It does not matter whether it is a plant's own gene modifications or genes foreign to the plant, because familiarity does not exclude risks!" The question of risks and unpredictable consequences is the key question for BfN research, she said.

Economy and trade: genetic engineering does not sell!

"GMO's don't sell!" Dr Heike Moldenhauer, Secretary General of the European Non-GMO Association (ENGA), put it in a nutshell. "The food sector is clearly against deregulation for new genetic engineering and the majority of consumers do not want to buy GMO modified food. It cannot be that the food sector has to bear the risks of deregulation!" she said. The food industry's "Ohne Gentechnik Label" (without genetic

Heike Moldenhauer and Jan Plagge

engineering label) is extremely successful and sells food worth 13 million euros annually in Germany alone.

Other representatives of the trade, such as Fabrizio Fabbri of eurocoop, a giant European trading power, and Jörg Rohwedder of the transnational consumer protection organisation Food Watch, also made very clear statements against the deregulation of European genetic engineering law and called for the retention of the current legislation with risk assessment and labelling, which has been confirmed by the ECJ.

Ms T. Loftgard from Canada impressively described the drastic economic effects of the introduction of genetically modified seeds and GMO end products. Japan and Korea, for example, have sent back entire container loads of GMO-contaminated products and refused to accept them. Exports have collapsed, making trade in GMO products almost impossible.

Politics, associations and NGOs: No to deregulation

Jan Plagge, President of IFOAM and Bioland spoke as a representative of the organic sector: "The precautionary principle is a cornerstone of European legislation." He said this must of course remain so in the future: "We need a risk assessment and labelling for new GMOs just as we do for old ones, so as not to endanger the entire organic sector in Europe." But he also addressed another important aspect: "The good goals of the farm-to-fork strategy cannot be achieved with deregulation. Because deregulation of legislation would take away the basis for organic farming, how can it be expanded?" In contrast to NGTs, which are fraught with high, unpredictable risks and have also been recognised by the European Court of Justice as GMOs to be regulated, organic farming offers a proven, holistic production system that takes climate, environment and nature into account and makes it possible to achieve the farm-to-fork strategy sustainably.

Profiteers of deregulation

Nina Holland from Corporate Europe and MEP Maria Arena also spoke in the same vein. Nina Holland: The Commission's proposal for deregulation does not serve the European Green Deal at all, because only the agrochemical corporations would profit from the "greenwashing" of the NGTs, which already make a third of their profits with highly dangerous pesticides. "They certainly have no intention of giving up their lucrative business model."

Maria Arena went into reasons for the Commission's proposal. She said there was immense pressure on the Commission to accept NGTs as a key technology for food security in times of climate change. "This is absurd to hear such arguments from lobbyists whose industry is responsible for environmental damage and loss of biodiversity."

Commission DG Sante representative Ms C. Bury said in her statement just that, that there was evidence that NGTs promote sustainability and that the industry had a number of products in development. She admitted that there was some pressure. However, she did not want to jeopardise consumer choice or the organic industry. There can be no blanket solutions, one relies on the scientific expertise of EFSA.

In the past, the EFSA has made several decisions in favour of the genetic engineering and pesticide industry - keyword glyphosate. (Comment by the author)

Conclusion: An important event where all arguments against deregulation were on the side of a broad alliance of science, economy, politics and civil society.

Autor: Karin Heinze

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