GM crops may soon be permitted in EU as study hails health and sustainability benefits of genetic modification techniques

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/nevarpp
Image: Getty/nevarpp

Related tags: Gm, Gm crops, GMO, gene editing

The European Commission is gearing up to make new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) exempt from current environmental rules.

In a report, it said new genetic modification techniques such as CRISPR/Cas have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system as part of the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

In 2018 the European Court of Justice ruled that new GMOs must be regulated under the existing EU GMO laws, as to exempt them “would compromise the objective of protection”​ and “would fail to respect the precautionary principle”.

The report, however, concluded that more permissive rules may be needed to allow GMOs produced with these techniques. 

It said the current GMO legislation, adopted in 2001, is “not fit for purpose for these innovative technologies”.​ The Commission will now start a wide and open consultation process to discuss the design of a new legal framework for these biotechnologies.

Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said: "The study we publish today concludes that New Genomic Techniques can promote the sustainability of agricultural production, in line with the objectives of our Farm to Fork Strategy. With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, Member States and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the EU."

NGTs developing rapidly in many parts of the world

Currently there is no product obtained by New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) marketed in the EU. There are however products marketed outside the EU: a soybean with a healthier fatty acid profile, a tomato fortified with gamma-aminobutyric acid, and a bacterium for fertilising agricultural soil. Many products are also in a pre-market phase, and even more are under development.

In the UK, the government is proposing removing the current regulatory barriers to genetically modified and genetically altered crops​.

The EU noted that NGTs, defined as all techniques to alter the genome of an organism developed after 2001 (when the EU's legislation on GMOs was adopted), have rapidly developed over the last two decades in many parts of the world, with some applications already on the market of some EU trade partners.

The bloc’s study claimed that GMOs, by contributing to the EU's objectives of innovation and sustainability of food systems, can have benefits for many sectors of our societies.

It also discovered that NGT products have the potential to contribute to sustainable food systems with plants more resistant to diseases, environmental conditions and climate change effects. Moreover, the products can benefit from higher nutritional qualities such as healthier fatty acid content, and reduced need for agricultural inputs such as pesticides.

At the same time, the study also analysed concerns associated with NGT products and their current and future applications. Concerns included the possible safety and environmental impact, for example, on biodiversity, the coexistence with organic and GM-free agriculture, as well as labelling

NGTs are a very diverse set of techniques and can achieve different results, with some plant products produced by NGTs being as safe as conventionally bred plants for human and animal health and for the environment.

The EC study concluded that NGTs can be used to refine and improve the production of useful substances from microorganisms, with applications in food ingredients.

In the agri-food sector, it said NGTs can make plants resistant to pests and diseases, needing less chemical pesticides (e.g. fungi-resistant maize or potato), or resistant to the effects of climate change (e.g. rain resistant wheat or drought-tolerant rice). NGTs can also improve the nutrient content of vegetables for healthier diets (e.g. soybean oil with healthier fatty acid content), or reduce content of harmful substances such as toxins and allergens (e.g. potatoes with reduced acrylamide content).

The study identifies plant NGT products currently being marketed or in development that are fit to contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies as well as to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

Similarly, farm animals can be made more resistant to certain diseases, increasing their health and welfare.

GMO techniques can have ‘unintended mutational effects’

Greenpeace, however, warned that evidence is growing that new GMO techniques can have unintended mutational effects, as well as the changes the developers want to make. 

It complained that new genetic modification techniques allow biotech companies to make significant changes to organisms that are not found in nature, and fundamentally different from traditional breeding techniques.

Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace EU GMO policy adviser, said: “The EU has a responsibility to protect the rights of farmers to choose what they plant and for people to choose what they eat, and to protect the environment and biodiversity from potential harm from new GMOs. The EU Commission and national governments must respect the precautionary principle and the European Court of Justice’s decision – GMOs by another name are still GMOs, and must be treated as such under the law.”

Europe’s organic sector was also concerned by the development. Jan Plagge, IFOAM Organics Europe President, said: “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 – including their ability to trace GMOs throughout the food chain to avoid contaminations that lead to economic losses and to live up to organic quality standards and consumer expectations. Organic producers urge the Commission and Member States to maintain the existing regulatory framework and seriously consider the impact of the proposed regulatory scenario on organic food & farming, consumer choice and access to agrobiodiversity.”

Rather than depending on and hoping for silver bullet solutions such as GM crops, the group said the Commission’s focus should be on upscaling concrete and well-defined agroecological practices with proven benefits for biodiversity and soil quality. It said: “Organic farming is already implementing a wide range of practices to make our food and farming systems more resilient to pests and diverse environmental conditions, as well as extreme weather events linked to climate change while reducing the dependency on synthetic pesticides.”

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