Is the EU Opening the Door to More Hidden GMOs?

Slow Food Europe: Excluding the New Plant Breeding Techniques from the Existing GMO Law Risks Opening the Door to More Hidden GMOs

It has been one year since July 25, 2018, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained from New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs), such as CRISPR, must fall under the already existing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) directive and must thus be subject to thorough risk assessment procedures and labelling. Industry representatives and several Member States of the European Union are currently putting EU decision-makers under pressure to exclude NPBTs from the existing EU regulation. Slow Food Europe is certain this would undermine the precautionary principle and sign the end of consumer choice to eat GM-free food.

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On the first anniversary of the ECJ ruling, Slow Food Europe calls on EU decision-makers not to give in to the pressure and to respect the court’s decision. Slow Food Europe has been actively raising awareness on the importance of maintaining the legal classification of organisms modified by NPBTs as GMOs under the GMO directive, and has been calling to preserve the precautionary principle, which is enshrined in EU law. While NPBTs are obtained through directed mutagenesis (which allows the direct modification of plants’ or animals’ DNA), and do not include foreign genes, they are the product of gene engineering just as GMOs, resulting in similar risks and uncertainties in the eyes of Slow Food Europe.

“The precautionary principle was embodied in international environmental law at the Earth Summit to empower states to prevent and avert damage as a precaution. It is the basis of environmental and consumer protection in the EU. Chemical companies and many research institutions want NPBTs to bypass the precautionary principle,” says Christine von Weizsäcker, leading German biologist and environmental activist, adding that the precautionary legislation is already risking to be undermined or at least massively weakened by the newly invented “innovation principle”.

“In addition to adhering to the classification of NPBTs as genetic engineering, the EU must go one step further and ensure that no genetically modified food ends up on our plates. Currently, more than 60 GM plants are imported into the EU. Mainly used as animal feed, they indirectly end up on our plates through animal products. There is a clear gap in the law here, because even if the animal is fed with GM feed, this does not have to be indicated on the label of the end product,” says Dr. Ursula Hudson, President of Slow Food Germany.

Slow Food Europe is concerned about the further use of genetic engineering in food production and the future of food systems and calls on EU decision-makers to completely ban GM crops in the EU, regardless of whether they have been produced using new or old genetic engineering methods.

According to Slow Food expert and lead author of the World Agriculture Report, Dr. Anita Idel, almost all modern genetic engineering plants are toxic to insects and/or are resistant to herbicides – such as glyphosate. She draws attention to the nature of GM seeds, which “can only grow effectively in combination with pesticides. Upon release, contaminations can hardly be avoided and the transgenic plants can spread further.”

Currently, only three companies control 60% of the international seed market. Also, genetically-modified plants and animals are patented, and ownership lies exclusively in the hands of the company that sells them.

“Genetic engineering follows the logic of the industrial food system: harvest cannot be used for reproducing one’s own seeds, forcing farmers to buy new GM seeds each sowing season, and creating financial and product dependencies for producers. This makes food sovereignty impossible and increasingly endangers our food safety. The necessary framework must be provided by a reorientation of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy towards the common good.”

Slow Food Europe welcomes with apprehension the words of Dr. Angelika Hilbeck from the Institute for Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich and member of the board of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Ecological Responsibility (ENSSER) who estimates that the risk potential of NPBTs is higher than that of “conventional” genetic engineering techniques due to their increased depth of intervention and possible effects on the environment and within the modified organisms and thus calls for even higher regulation standards.

“The greater depth of intervention of NPBTs such as CRISPR, along with insufficient knowledge about gene functions and about their interactions with the environment as well as the lack of their traceability requires the greatest possible precaution and calls for stricter regulation of NPBTs than is currently the case for “conventional” genetic engineering techniques.”

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