‘It is time for a new position’: Denmark’s Ethics Council calls for updated GMO law

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/nevarpp
©GettyImages/nevarpp

Related tags: GMO, gene editing, Denmark

The Danish Council of Ethics recommends that legislation regarding the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be changed to help achieve sustainability objectives.

In an opinion published today (29 April), Denmark’s Ethics Council called for a new debate on genetically modified plants. 15 out of 16 members support the recommendation.

According to the Council – which provides ongoing advice about ethical problems within the national health service and biomedical fields to parliament, authorities and the public – much has changed since GMOs were developed in the 1990s.

“Therefore, it is time for a new position,” ​writes supporting Council members in the opinion (available here​ in Danish).

As it stands, EU law regulates GMOs, which use genetic engineering to insert new code, in the same way as genome-edited crops – which do not contain foreign DNA.

However, according to the Ethics Council, the modification of a plant, and not the technique used to achieve modification, should be the deciding factor for its approval.

“All plants with new properties should be screened regardless of whether they have been developed with gene technology or traditional breeding [techniques],” ​a majority of Council members continued.

Behind the argument lies a growing need to combat the disastrous effects of climate change. The 15 Council members say that genetically modifying plants can make them resistant to disease and pest infestations, and more efficiently use water and nutrients in the soil.

Such modifications could help plants better cope with extreme weather conditions and achieve other sustainability objectives, they continue.

A significant ‘stamp of approval’

According to Andreas Christiansen, a postdoc researcher from the University of Copenhagen who contributed background material to the Ethics Council, the opinion is significant.

“Denmark has consistently been against GMOs and voted against [their use] many times,” ​he told FoodNavigator.

For Christiansen, this latest opinion therefore represents “a very new stance”​ for the Nordic country.

“Previously, many have thought GMOs might offer certain benefits – such as economic benefits – but were ethically dubious in some way,” ​he explained.

The fact that the Ethics Council is now largely behind this technology could make for change, he suggested. “The Council, which is supposed to take these ethical questions seriously…might potentially be a big deal, at least with respect to public opinion.

“So the fact that [GMOs] have this stamp of approval from this kind of council might actually make a difference.”

The Danish Agriculture and Food Council similarly welcomes the Ethics Council’s opinion, chief consultant Bruno Sander Nielsen told FoodNavigator. “…We need efficient tools to improve the food crops to meet challenges such as climate change.”

In particular, the membership body – which represents Denmark’s farming and food industries – supports new gene technologies such as CRISPR/Cas.

This genome-editing tool removes part of genetic code, rather than transferring genes between species – which occurs in traditional GMO techniques.

“It is very important that these precision breeding or precision mutation technologies are available for European plant breeders and farmers as a supplement to traditional breeding techniques and classic GMO,” ​Sander Nielsen continued.

Organic association weighs in: ‘There is still a lack of knowledge’​ 

Denmark’s Ecological Land Association, which represents the interests of organic farmers, companies and consumers, remains aligned with the global prohibition of GMOs in organic farming.

As GMOs will not be accepted in organic agriculture, chairman Per Kølster told FoodNavigator he takes no issue with the Ethics Council’s opinion. However, Kølster did raise concerns regarding the lack of long-term GMO data in the public sphere.

“Should the definition be changed in the EU legislation, we have to stress, that there is still a serious lack of knowledge about the risks both concerning health and environment.

We will stick to the principle of care and precaution and we will make sure that there is full transparency to make sure that farmers as well as consumers know what they buy and can make their choice.”

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