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EU Commission draft on new genetic engineering turns the polluter pays principle on its head

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

There has been great concern in the organic sector for quite some time because the plans of the EU Commission to weaken European genetic engineering law are worrying. This has now been confirmed in the proposal of the Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, which, however, has not yet been adopted by the Cabinet of all Commissioners. The German organic umbrella organisations BÖLW and BNN and also Martin Häusling Greens' agricultural policy spokesperson in the European Parliament and member of the Environment and Health Committee inform about the draft and criticise it strongly: "The freedom of choice of consumers, as well as the safeguarding of the precautionary principle, are trampled underfoot by the submarine of "conventional-like" genetically modified plants! Citizens and farmers would be completely taken for fools." (Tina Andres, BÖLW)

New genetic engineering is genetic engineering (Image database by WIX)

Martin Häusling MEP: Deregulation of genetic engineering is a disastrous recipe for people, the earth and nature

Martin Häusling, Greens' agricultural policy spokesperson in the European Parliament and member of the Environment and Health Committee, comments: "This proposal must not become law!" The deregulation efforts envisaged in the 5 June leak are disastrous in their effects and should be rejected outright. Häusling lists the following reasons:

CRITICISM: In large parts of the proposal, the EU Commission follows 100 percent the rhetoric of the Gentec lobby by assuming the equivalence of certain genetically modified plants to conventionally bred or even to natural plants as a possible option for waiving authorisation procedures and labelling. Such plants are to be completely exempted from risk evaluation, tracking and labelling. Numerous scientists and numerous research projects show that this assumption is scientifically untenable. Any direct intervention in the genome of a plant can have unforeseen effects and carries a much higher risk than conventional breeding. This has already been documented several times, Häusling's press release states.

Moreover, this abandons the process control anchored in Europe according to the precautionary principle, which underlies all horizontal regulations in the food chain, and moves to the US principle of end product control. This is completely contrary to the EU treaties.

At the same time, the Commission stresses that these unlabelled plants should also be banned in organic farming. How this is supposed to work without labelling and tracking, the Commission does not say. Worse still, the producers are not even obliged to provide methods of verification.

For consumers, this regulatory overhaul would bring the greatest possible lack of transparency and zero freedom of choice. For the organic sector it would be a deliberate break of the neck. The Commission is going one better and withdrawing the "opt-out" regulation introduced in 2015, which allowed Member States to enact national bans on certain genetically modified plants.

Martin Häusling

CRISPR/ CAS & Co no longer GMO?

The agreed draft is expected to be officially presented in July. As far as is known, certain plants whose genetic material has been modified by new genetic engineering methods such as CRISPR/CAS are no longer to be covered by genetic engineering law in future. According to the proposal of Commissioner Stella Kyriakides plants developed with new genetic techniques will in future be classified into two different categories:  

Category 1:

NGT plants, which are supposed to be "equivalent" to conventional plants and do NOT have to go through an approval procedure and thus no risk assessment (anymore), they only have to be "notified".

These plants and their products are also no longer labelled in the value chain (and thus also on the end product). Only the seed has to be labelled as "NGT". 

CRITICISM: In view of the very broad criteria chosen for classification in this category, it can/must be assumed that a large proportion of future NGT plants will fall into this category.  However, the criteria for "equivalence" (number of modified base pairs in the DNA or similar) cannot be scientifically justified because the type of modification (e.g. toxin production or similar) is irrelevant. 

Category 2: 

All other NGT plants are to undergo an "adapted" approval procedure including risk assessment and will continue to be labelled as GM products. However, "simplifications" are envisaged compared to the previous procedure. In principle, a comprehensive risk assessment will only be required if there are "plausible indications" of risks in advance (Annex II). However, the text of the regulation only refers to the concrete "intended" changes.

CRITICISM: Possible "unintended" changes in the genome or metabolism would thus no longer be investigated, although experience shows that it is precisely from them that risks to humans or the environment can arise.

The monitoring of possible effects on the environment and health would be significantly reduced.

The obligation to submit a practical detection method, which is anchored in the current genetic engineering law, is also to be waived for NGT plants if the applicant can "prove" that such a detection is not technically possible. 

All in all, under this proposal there would be three different genetic engineering regulations in the agricultural and food sector in future: 

The current rules for "old" genetic engineering with foreign genes ("transgenesis"). 

Rules for NGT plants of category I 

Regulations for NGT plants of category II 

Nightmare for the organic agriculture and food sector

This is a bureaucratic nightmare for the agricultural and food sector, criticises BÖLW. In organic production, all three categories of plants/products should (continue to) be excluded/prohibited (Article 5). 

 No "opt-out": In contrast to previous GMOs, the proposal stipulates that EU states may not restrict or ban the cultivation or use of NGT plants on their territory, i.e. the so-called "opt-out option" is not to apply to the new GMOs (Article 8).

Breeding to be completely shifted to the laboratory in future? (Image database WIX)

Coexistence regulations, traceability and transparency - abolished

Kathrin Jäckel, Managing Director of the German Association for Natural Foods and Drink (BNN) e.V., comments on the draft: "The EU Commission recognises that new genetic engineering must also remain banned in organic agriculture and food production. However, it proposes to abolish the necessary protection from coexistence regulations, traceability and transparency. As a consequence, this would mean a significantly higher effort for companies in the organic sector to ensure the quality of organic food. In addition, it increases the risk of contamination of organic products with new genetic engineering from conventional agriculture. This turns the polluter pays principle on its head. It cannot be that the very companies that try to avoid new genetic engineering have to bear the costs of ensuring that their products are free of genetic engineering."

New genetic engineering does not make agriculture and food more sustainable. It is about the farming system and not about the individual traits of plants. Organic farming is the only functioning system for sustainable agriculture and food production. Any additional burden on the organic agriculture and food sector jeopardises the urgently needed transformation towards more sustainability and the management of the climate and biodiversity crisis, and also the German government's target of 30 per cent organic."

Kathrin Jäckel, BNN

New genetic engineering does not make agriculture and food more sustainable. (Image database by WIX)

Slap in the face for consumer protection and freedom of choice

Tina Andres, Chair of the Board of the German Organic Food Association (BÖLW), explains: "The draft law on genetic engineering is a slap in the face for consumer protection and freedom of choice and drives farmers into dependence on genetic engineering companies through patents. According to the EU Commission's proposal, the majority of all plants manipulated with genetic engineering in the future will neither be tested for risks nor labelled on the end product. Only at the seed level is there to be a declaration. The decision-making criteria according to which a distinction is to be made in future between the two different categories of genetically modified plants (with or without approval procedures) are completely arbitrary. The EU Commission would thus be saying goodbye to the science-based authorisation that has been established for decades.

Genetic engineering contradicts the basic principles of organic.

The EU Commission does recognise this. However, there are no proposals with which this exclusion can be implemented in practice. There are also to be no EU-wide specifications for protection against genetic engineering contamination, so-called "coexistence rules", but this responsibility is shifted to the EU member states. At the same time, the draft law is intended to undermine their sovereignty: National governments are in principle not to be allowed to prevent the release of new genetic engineering organisms. It is thus completely unclear how organic farms would even be able to recognise whether genetic engineering is being cultivated in the region, where contamination risks exist and with which - possibly shared - machinery comes into contact with GM goods or in which processing and trading companies the GM products are used and can thus contaminate organic food."

"The overwhelming majority of people in Europe, more than 80 percent, do not want genetic engineering on their plates or in the fields - but above all, people want to be able to decide for themselves what they eat! The "non-rules" now presented would, in the long term, force all those involved in breeding, agriculture, food processing, trade and consumers to use and eat genetic engineering and, moreover, drive them irretrievably into dependencies on patents of large agricultural corporations."

Tina Andres, BÖLW

(Image database by WIX)

The European Court of Justice also emphasised very clearly in its landmark decision that and why consistent regulation of genetic engineering is indispensable.

The EU Commissioners must now decide whether they want to live up to their responsibility towards the citizens or whether they want to become the lackey of a small, loud lobby of genetic engineering corporations and genetic engineering researchers.

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