New Plant Breeding Techniques: Commissioner Andriukaitis is missing the point

Ursula Hudson, President of Slow Food Germany has recently published her opinion article on German Euractiv, reacting to the statement of Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, where he argued that “the ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NPBTs) needed new legislation.” The NPBTs is one of the emerging issues at the European level, and Slow Food Europe considers it is vital to address it widely. Please read the English version of the opinion article below. 

Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, in an article recently published on Euractiv, argued that “the ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NPBTs) needed new legislation.” This statement by Commissioner Andriukaitis, who is now running in the presidential election in Lithuania, and who finishes his term in the Commission in the coming months, comes as a surprise considering his previous claims that  “the future of NPBTs at the EU level lies in the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of existing law.”

It appears that the Commissioner has since changed his mind and started questioning the ruling of the European Court of Justice, which in July 2018 declared that “organisms obtained by mutagenesis [NPBTs] are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) […], in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally.” Ahead of the Court ruling, Andriukaitis had said that the Commission has no right to interpret the law, and that it would, therefore, act accordingly and “move forward one way or another.”

The European Court of Justice ruling means that NPBTs fall under the GMO directive and are thus subject to thorough risk assessment procedures, and to labelling and traceability which are absolutely necessary to guarantee that EU farmers know what they are sowing and citizens what they are eating. Andriukaitis argues that the GMO legislation, adopted 20 years ago, refers to “old techniques” without taking into consideration the technological progress in this field. However, that is incorrect: the EU GMO Directive lists a number of processes as resulting in GMOs, a list that is explicitly open-ended (‘inter alia’) so that the Directive can be applied to technical developments in genetic engineering. Supportive of the ruling of the European Court of Justice, Slow Food maintains that EU GMO law must be fully applied to the so-called ‘New Plant Breeding Techniques’.

In the article, Commissioner Andriukaitis goes on to argue that the public opinion needs to stop “being manipulated by specific actors.” I wonder which “specific actors” Andriukaitis has in mind, but I feel that this statement could well be directed at organizations such as ours, the worldwide Slow Food movement, and other NGOs, who actively oppose the idea that NPBTs should be treated any differently from GMOs. Rather than talking about manipulation and “scare-mongering”, we strongly believe that it is time to fully inform the public – farmers and citizens alike – of the known and unknown risks associated with NPBTs.

The Commissioner, like many actors of the biotechnology industry, presents NPBTs as the “scientific” solution to achieving sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. Biotechnology companies claim that NPBTs are needed to meet the upcoming challenges of plentiful and sustainable agricultural production. But that is far from the whole story. On the contrary, GMOs and NPBTs are an essential part of an increasingly intensive model of agriculture with a widespread monocultural approach, which is widely acknowledged to be contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, and an unhealthy food system overall. NPBTs present the same concerns related to patenting as GMOs which is that they deprive farmers of their means of production, because patents allow multinationals to retain the ownership of GM seeds. Furthermore, unwanted and unpredictable effects of NPBTs cannot be excluded, with possible implications for foods, animal feed, and the environment. The risk of biodiversity loss that derives from the application of these techniques is, in our view, the same as that posed by GMOs.

When asked by Euractiv to comment on GMOs, Andriukaitis goes as far as bringing up an argument often used by the industry, asking how “many people have died because of GMOs?” For a Commissioner who likes to routinely remind the public that he is a medical doctor, such an unscientific argument is frustrating. First, no rigorous clinical studies nor long-term independent research has so far been published to prove that GMOs are safe. Their consumption continues to raise doubts and concerns within the scientific community. Second, to talk only of the health risks related to consumption ignores the risks faced by thousands of workers in countries producing GMO feed, which Europe continues to import to feed its livestock. The EU imports up to 22 million tonnes of soybean and soybean cake annually, much of which is sourced from South American countries where pesticide poisoning, as well as deforestation, evictions, and human rights abuses have been documented in intensive export cropping zones. Finally, the health of soil is almost always overlooked, and yet the biodiversity hidden in the soil in the form of microorganisms are the basis of plant and ecosystem life. The excessive use of pesticides is killing earthworms and microbes, which are essential for soil fertility. It is the whole model of GM farming, mostly based on glyphosate adoption, that goes well beyond the risks to human health of consumption.

As Slow Food, we work every day with small farmers from all over the world who cultivate food biodiversity following the principles of agroecology. Agroecology is based on a holistic approach to food systems to build long-term soil fertility, healthy agroecosystems, and secure and equitable livelihoods. One of the key strengths of agroecology is its effectiveness in boosting the adaptability and resilience of food production by maintaining crop genetic diversity. A growing number of studies indicate that agroecological systems have the potential to improve on the outcomes of industrial agriculture. Money can only be invested once; rather than investing in developing “quick fixes” that still concentrate the control of the food system in the hands of a few interests, investments should be made in researching and promoting agroecology.

Too often, the debate about agriculture and GMOs is reduced to who is scaremongering the loudest, but that entirely misses the point. We should instead be examining the evidence that small-scale farmers already provide us: agroecological systems based on genetic diversity deliver on all fronts and are the way forward.

However, the current Commission has a different vision of Europe’s agricultural and food system. The new Common Agricultural Policy reform is not promising a significant breakthrough, while the comments by Commissioner Andriukaitis show that unfortunately, the EU Health and Food Safety chief does not see real value in the ideas promoted by Slow Food and so many other environmental and food organizations. This begs the question: what is the food and agricultural system that Europe wants? It simply looks like we are concentrating on the wrong solutions. We hope the future Commission will be better informed, open, and determined in promoting sustainable food systems based on agroecology.

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