Eu must not let its guard down on food safety

11 Dec 2023

By Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food 

On the occasion of the Council meeting of European Agriculture and Fisheries ministers on 10 and 11 December, this opinion piece by Carlo Petrini was published in La Repubblica and sent to all EU ministers on 10 December.

On December 10 and 11, EU agriculture ministers have gathered at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels to reach a common position on the proposal for a regulation on new genomic techniques (NGTs), commonly known as new Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  

Of particular concern about the outcome of this meeting is the position to be taken on the proposal presented by the European Commission on July 5 2023: a proposal that aims to deregulate these so-called NGTs, easing (if not entirely eliminating) regulations on safety, traceability and labeling requirements for the new GMOs. 

The direction suggested by the Commission seems entirely anachronistic. Those directly involved in food production know how many checks their businesses must undergo and how much paperwork is required to introduce an edible product onto the market, to ensure transparency and consumer health. So why fling open the doors to genetically modified foods before submitting them to a thorough risk assessment regarding their effects on human health and ecosystems? Why take away consumers’ ability to recognize a GMO product on the supermarket shelf, thus undermining the democratic choices of citizens (which, by the way, is contrary to the EU’s own Farm to Fork Strategy)? Furthermore, why create real disparities in favor of the dominance of a few genetically modified crops at the expense of local biodiversity? 

Upon closer inspection, we find even more questions and grey areas hidden behind this proposal: from the greenwashing campaign supporting this position (falsely claiming that NGTs are environmentally sustainable while they are still far from being scientifically proven); to the issue of the ownership of rights and patents for the new genetically modified seeds. 

However, the answers seem to be the same as the answers to all the major issues that occupy today’s agrifood debate, from the recent renewal for another 10 years of the authorization for glyphosate (a herbicide whose carcinogenic effects have been highlighted by many scientific bodies) to the strong pressure the few owners (i.e. large investment funds) of patents for “cultivated meat” are exercising in order to sell their products on the market without any controls. It’s obvious that the chosen path forward is to shamelessly push food production even more towards industrialization. 

The term “food sovereignty” emerged in the 1990s within farming communities worldwide precisely to counter the strong pressures of industry on local food production. The concept of food sovereignty was born to defend farmers’ right to decide (and, first and foremost, to know) what they cultivate without being tied to buying seeds, as well as their right to safeguard biodiversity and to protect that indissoluble bond that links food with agriculture, ecosystems, and culture. 

In line with this, to protect European food sovereignty we need to be able to approach the complexity of food systems with sustainable solutions that maintain the central role of farmers, ensure a healthy and rich diet for everyone, and do not infringe upon the right to know the origin of seeds and the source of food, all while respecting biodiversity and natural resources. The solution that aligns with these goals already exists: agroecology. Perhaps its natural egalitarianism is why it seems to have no place in the current national and European political debate. 

Although the hope expressed by the European Commission is clear regarding “the maximum positive impact on the development and market entry of NGT plants and products (including food and feed),” as European citizens we have a duty to question whether these are truly the solutions capable of leading food production towards a better, cleaner, and fairer future for everyone – as well as to know whether what matters most in these decisions are the economic interests of some lobbies or the well-being of citizens.  

Slow Food calls on all EU ministers to reject the deregulation of new GMOs, given the severe impacts it would have, as signalled in our recent policy brief. 

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