New Rules for New Genetic Engineering Techniques in Europe Could Threaten the Development of Organic Food Systems

Published by IFOAM Organics Europe

In the last decades, the European Union’s (EU) rules on marketing and cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been a reference for GMO laws worldwide. It served as a benchmark regulation, setting high standards for environmental safety, health, and transparency. As the EU is a major importer and exporter of food and animal feed, its strict rules serve as incentive to harmonize production rules with EU standards for market access.

However, the EU might give up its position as a front-runner in strict regulation. As a new legal framework for new genetic engineering techniques is on the horizon, will the EU opt for a ‘lighter regulation’, inspired by the Americas, or will it go its own, pioneering way once more?

New genetic engineering techniques fall under EU’s current GMO Directive

In the European Union, the current GMO Directive (2001/18/EC) and connected regulations prescribe mandatory risk assessment, traceability throughout the food chain, and consumer labelling.

Recently, the question rose as to whether products from new genetic engineering techniques, also referred to as ‘new breeding techniques’ or ‘new genomic techniques’, fall under the scope of the current regulation. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that: “European Union’s legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) also applies to GMOs resulting from the use of new mutagenesis techniques. It confirmed that only organisms obtained through techniques which have “conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record“ can be excluded from EU GMO law”.

While this clarified the legal situation and confirmed the existing regulation is fit-for-purpose for new technologies, the ruling was not consistently implemented by the EU’s Member States and coordinated by the European Commission. This created regulatory uncertainty, while products developed with the new techniques were already marketed in Canada and the US, for example.

In other parts of the world, decisions have been made about regulation or non-regulation. In the USA, some products from newGM varieties are currently not classified as ‘GMO’ and exempted from regulation, while in Australia, Brazil and Argentina, varieties without foreign DNA are not regulated. Canada opts for a slightly different approach, regulating only products if there's a ‘novel trait’ (with legal uncertainty on what classifies as a 'novel trait').

On 29 April 2021, the European Commission published a study on the status of ‘New Genomic Techniques’ (NGTs) under Union law and in light of the Court of Justice ruling in Case C-528/16’. The report is a compilation of inputs largely provided by agribiotech companies, conventional farming associations, counterbalanced by input from NGOs. In its report, the Commission recommends new legislation to promote NGTs in Europe and suggests exempting certain cisgenesis and certain mutagenesis techniques from GMO regulation.

Currently, there is no cultivation of newGM and only very few GMO varieties in Europe. The European Commission based their argument for new legislation on the promises of companies invested with newGM. These companies claim that future crops developed using these techniques could contribute to the European Green Deal’s goals (pesticide reduction and climate adaptation) and international competitiveness of the biotechnology sector.

IFOAM Organics Europe discussed the reports’ findings on previous occasions and expressed concerns that weakening the rules on using genetic engineering in agriculture and food is worrying news and could leave organic food systems unprotected.

While the Commission’s study mentioned the impact on organic producers, it did not propose a constructive solution on how to maintain traceability along the food chain. This includes the question of how and whether traceability of these organisms would be maintained for organic producers and enabling them not to use products from genetic engineering in their production process. Still, the Commission is moving forward with plans to create a new and specific legal framework. In addition, the report does not adequately address evidence on unintended on-target and off-target effects with potential safety implications as well as transparency for consumers and labelling issues.

Recently, there was a public consultation on the Inception Impact Assessment for “new genomic techniques”, which was open until 22 October. This consultation was open for all European citizens and organisations and aimed to identify crucial issues to be considered before a new legal proposal is made. IFOAM Organics Europe participated in this consultation, representing the European organic movement’s voice.

The outcomes of the October consultation will feed into the upcoming Impact Assessment. With the organic movement’s feedback included, there is a bigger chance the process can start off on the right foot. Early 2022, there will be another public consultation to which IFOAM Organics Europe will also participate, representing the European organic movement’s voice.

Stay tuned about these developments on www.organicseurope.bio/what-we-do/gmos and on Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn using @OrganicsEurope. IFOAM Organics Europe’s members working on GMOs can contact martin.sommer@organicseurope.bio to get involved in national advocacy activities.