EU consultation on a legal framework for “new GMOs” sparks food traceability fears
08 Feb 2023 --- Concerns are growing that upcoming food gene-editing (New Genomic Techniques or NGT) regulation in the EU might be too lax. A coalition of more than 50 food and environmental organizations have joined forces to oppose EU proposals that would allow NGT foods to reach markets without going through the existing burdensome GMO approval process.
The fears center on the fact that NGT foods could circumnavigate GMO regulation. However, proponents of the legislation – such as Bayer, Euroseeds, BASF and Syngenta – explain that the European Commission still needs to examine the regulation further to finalize precisely what the rules will be.
Even before the upcoming announcement, when authorities will shine a light on the content of the new NGT legislative proposal, opponents fear that the European Commission might break all traceability in the existing food system.
The organizations have gathered over 420,000 signatures against deregulating what they call “new GMOs.”
“Currently, rules ensure traceability of new GMOs in the food system, which makes it possible for farmers to know that the seeds they purchase are GMO or not GMO,” Madeleine Coste, policy officer at Slow Food Europe, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“If the European Commission proposes to change this, as we expect, there is a risk of weakening traceability. In addition, the Commission has not invested sufficiently to develop detection methods, to be able to test and identify when products have been obtained from NGT. There is a real need to develop these detection methods further,” Coste continues.
Gene-edited organisms are not “new GMOs”
A Bayer spokesperson explains to FoodIngredientsFirst that there is a distinction between GMOs and gene-edited organisms.
“GMOs have been used safely for approximately 25 years now and they stand for a technology that includes foreign genes into a plant, for example, genes from other plants or genes from bacteria. Gene-editing with technologies like CRISPR-Cas – gene-editing technologies – is completely different: it just works with the genes that already exist in the plant and we have the possibility to switch certain genes on or off.”
“This is a very precise and swift method of optimizing a plant or crop compared to traditional breeding methods. In terms of regulation, the difference between GMOs and gene-edited plans is very important. The actual regulation in the EU has been made for GMOs, but it doesn’t represent the new technological developments properly. The gene modifications of a plant that have been developed with the help of gene-editing could occur naturally as well. There is no difference when it comes to the result.”
NGTs will allow for pesticide reduction – through more pest-resilient crops – and a boost in food production, to cope with droughts and floods and to reduce CO2 in the soil.
“One of the greatest challenges of our time is feeding a growing population while respecting the natural boundaries of our planet. To address these challenges, innovation in agriculture, including innovative seeds, is essential,” the Bayer spokesperson continues.
“They can increase yields, thus require less surface to be cultivated, need fewer resources such as fertilizers, crop protection products or water and are more resistant to extreme weather conditions.”
No opting out of modified diets
Signatories of the proposal, like Clara Behr, head of policy at the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International, fear that the new rules would prevent farmers, food producers, retailers and consumers from opting for GMO-free choices.
“We know that EU citizens are not in favor of GMOs, and untransparent labeling of GMOs would surely lead to consumer boycotts,” warns Coste.
A 2021 IPSOS poll conducted across all EU countries and carried on behalf of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament showed that 86% of people who have heard of GMOs believe “food made from such crops should be labeled accordingly.”
In total, 68% of respondents who are aware of CRISPR/Cas editing genes technology answered that they believe products derived from those techniques should be labeled as GMOs.
Currently, there are a myriad of so-called eco-labels being rolled out across various F&B products. Still, with no gold standard or strict rules governing precisely what the logos mean and what methodology is behind them, concerns are growing that they will confuse consumers and ultimately be counterproductive.
The problem could be intensified with the passing of the NGT regulation.
“We fear that the labeling of new GMOs will be very untransparent, perhaps even be replaced by ‘sustainability labeling,’ which is expected to be proposed in the ‘Sustainable Food Systems legislative framework,’ which could potentially label a product obtained from NGT (such as drought-tolerance) as ‘sustainable,’ instead of having the transparent label of ‘GMO,’” explains Coste.
Opponents of the legislation also raise doubts that real drought tolerance through NGT could be achieved as it would require the modification of over 60 genes. Moreover, some techniques, such as controlled plant breeding, don’t require NGT to improve crop drought resistance.
There are also fears that GMOs are not sustainable and contribute to biodiversity loss through mixing with or dominating wild plants.
Furthermore, a weakening of the rules on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food is worrying news and could leave organic food systems unprotected, weakening organic quality standards, Jan Plagge, president of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements told FoodIngredientsFirst.
Boosting food security?
Edited foods would allow for increased yields and lower food prices, according to proponents of the technology. Moreover, advocates say gene editing could fast-track pesticide reduction and help close micronutrient gaps that undermine public health.
In the UK, gene-edited vitamin-D-enriched tomatoes are set to boost diets amid a widespread deficiency of the vitamin – especially in those who consume vegan diets.
“We believe that there is strong pressure from the agri-food lobby to further intensify food production in reaction to the recent crises (COVID-19 and the Russian war in Ukraine), which is unfounded. Scientists have made clear that food security is not under threat in the EU,” notes Coste.
“Although Europe produces enough for their own consumption, the goal of food security has global dimensions,” the Bayer spokesperson responds.
“It’s not just about the people that live in Europe, it’s about eight billion globally. According to the FAO, approximately 350 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity. Europe needs to step up and help to address this global problem.
“Also European farmers need innovative plants that can cope with droughts, floods or different kinds of pests. Gene-edited plants can address these challenges going forward,” the spokesperson concludes.
By Marc Cervera
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