Biotech lobbyists are staging a "below-the-radar attack" on European regulations, attempting to have new genetic modification (GM) techniques excluded from rules that impact the environment, food safety, and consumer choice, according to a new report from the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).
In doing so, big agrichemical corporations like Bayer, BASF, Dow Agrosciences, and Monsanto, are essentially trying to circumvent Europe's relatively strict regulation of GM organisms, which includes a mandated assessment of health and environmental risks, as well as labeling. Since 2015, EU national governments can also ban GM crops from being grown in their countries. Nineteen governments have banned GM crop farming on all or part of their territory.
However, since Europe's GM law was introduced in 2001, new genetic engineering techniques have emerged. And now, the industry has set up a dedicated, EU-level lobbying vehicle—the 'New Breeding Techniques (NBT) Platform'—with the mission of influencing a pending European Commission decision on these "GM 2.0" techniques. The decision is expected to be issued next month.
"The NBT Platform, with its very name, has rebranded the new GM techniques as 'new breeding techniques' to make them sound different from 'genetic engineering'," Corporate Europe Observatory explains in its analysis. "Not without success: the European Commission and other regulatory bodies have fully adopted this term in their communication on the topic."
But this effort is nothing more than an attempt to get GM in "through the back door," Greenpeace warned in a policy briefing (pdf) at the end of 2015.
Indeed, as Greenpeace and seven other groups wrote in an open letter (pdf) to the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety last month:
Any attempt to engineer genomes by invasive methods can cause unexpected and unpredictable effects. For example, “cisgenesis”—a genetic engineering technique that uses genes from the same species—is still genetic engineering and is therefore subject to unexpected and unpredictable effects caused by the genetic engineering process itself, and not by the trait or sequence inserted. New techniques to genetically engineer plants and animals, such as so-called DNA scissors (nucleases) and interventions in gene regulation, raise additional concerns.
What's more, the techniques being considered by the Commission—such as oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), agroinfiltration, and zinc finger nuclease technology (ZFN)—appear to be deliberately "designed to circumvent the EU's GMO regulations," CEO points out.
The group cites an industry lobby document sent to EU decision makers in 2013 that "could not be clearer about the industry's motivation to develop new GM techniques: they were developed 'as a response to the de facto moratorium on GMOs that currently exists in Europe'."
If biotech corporations gets their way, and "GM 2.0" processes remain exempt from existing GM laws, "an increasing number of GM products would never be assessed for their potential effects on our food, health or the environment," Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg wrote last week. "They would not be labelled either, so European consumers, farmers and breeders would have no way of avoiding them."
But as CEO argues, "The legal case that new GM techniques should be covered by the current regulations is, in fact, crystal clear."
Indeed, Greenpeace echoes: "The GMO regulations in the EU should be interpreted in their intended sense, to encompass all modern biotechnological processes that directly modify genomes. Otherwise, the EU would be failing its citizens."