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04 February, 2016

Biotech lobby’s push for new GMOs to escape regulation

The biotech industry is staging an audacious bid to have a whole new generation of genetic engineering techniques excluded from European regulations. The pending decision of the European Commission on the regulation of these so-called 'new GMOs' represents a climax point in the ongoing below-the-radar attack by industry on GM laws.

Corporate Europe Observatory

The EU's GM regulations have long been a thorn in the biotech industry's side. For their lobbyists, the Commission decision presents a unique opportunity to twist the interpretation of these rules – including the very definition of a GMOso as to exclude the new genetic engineering techniques from their scope. This goes alongside ongoing industry attacks on the application of the precautionary principle – the basis of EU GM regulations – to novel food production techniques.

New genetic engineering techniques, which have emerged since Europe’s GMO law was introduced in 2001, are currently being applied by developers to food crops, trees, farm animals and insects. If the industry lobby campaign is successful, new GM organisms and foods – produced by techniques including oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), agroinfiltration and zinc finger nuclease technology (ZFN) - could enter the environment and the food chain untested, untraceable and unlabeled. Dozens of patents have already been filed in this field by the big agrochemical corporations like Bayer, BASF, Dow Agrosciences and Monsanto.

Due to widespread consumer rejection of GMOs, invisibility is vital for the commercial success of any new genetically engineered product in Europe. Their unregulated mass release could however have far-reaching consequences for the environment, food safety and consumer choice. Therefore, calls from farmers and environmental groups to regulate the new GM are increasing. The techniques in question each bring their own set of risks and uncertainties. Technical reports and legal analyses by government bodies and NGOs have concluded that GM 2.0 should not escape the EU GM regulations.1 Whilst some risks are similar to those associated with GM 1.0, there are also serious additional concerns.

To further its cause, industry has set up a dedicated, EU-level lobbying vehicle – the New Breeding Techniques Platform – with the mission of having as many of the new GM techniques as possible excluded from EU GM regulations. This platform is run by Schuttelaar & Partners, a Dutch lobby and PR firm with a shady reputation for pro-GM lobbying. At the same time, individual companies have been pressing various European governments to clarify the legal status of the new genetic engineering techniques, while announcing plans to field trial them in those countries. Furthermore, certain governments have been actively advocating the deregulation of new GM techniques at the EU level.

The ongoing negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are an additional source of political pressure on European decision makers. In this context, industry lobby groups have presented the regulation of new GM techniques as a trade concern to both US and EU officials, claiming that the innovative nature and competitiveness of the European plant breeding (read: biotech) sector is at stake.

After contemplating this question for eight years, the Commission finally plans to publish a draft decision in February 2016. This briefing, based on documents released by the European Commission following freedom of information requests, illuminates the efforts made over the past three years by the industry lobby to have the new GM techniques deregulated. In addition, a first case study highlights the Dutch lobby campaign for the deregulation of cisgenesis, and a second one looks at Canadian company Cibus's push for the deregulation of its ODM oilseed rape.

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