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On Wednesday (7 February) MEPs will vote in the Strasbourg plenary on a proposal that would scrap any safety checks for GMOs (NGTs), as well as labelling and traceability requirements. Many of these MEPs, I suspect, will scratch their heads a few times about the implications of this deregulation proposal.
This article was written by Nina Holland (CEO) and originally appeared in EU Observer.
A few things stand out. The European Parliament rapporteur Jessica Polfjärd's (of the centre-right European People's Party) report has no scientific basis but nevertheless make the deregulated group of NGTs ("Category 1") cover nearly all NGTs.
Consumers' rights and the rights of the non-GM sector will deteriorate. The parliament text says it will ban NGTs from being patented — however, this regulation can legally not achieve that.
But finally, decision-makers across the EU institutions are finally waking up to the fact that the deregulation of NGT crops and wild plants will make the EU fully in non-compliance with the UN Biosafety Protocol that is part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
So how did we get here?
NGTs are crops made by new GM techniques like CRISPR-Cas. They are GMOs and are covered by the EU GMO rules as confirmed by the European Court of Justice (2018) that reasoned that lifting safety rules for NGTs would lead to unacceptable risks for environment and health.
The commission proposal was almost universally condemned for having no scientific basis whatsoever (something the commission did not outright deny.)
To add insult to injury, according to the latest text, gene-edited microbes and even animals will be up for deregulation next. This is causing grave concerns among animal welfare organisations.
But Polfjärd's report has worsened the proposal in a key manner: based on the advice of one single professor, who was invited to some committee meetings, the rapporteur even further widened the scope for deregulation.
Now it makes even less sense in terms of risks. From a certain number of genetic changes per organism, it has gone up to more genetic changes per gene, and only one sort of gene.
Not a single government agency, or EFSA, or anyone, has reviewed let alone vouched for this. It is mind-boggling to realise: nothing in Polfjärd's proposal warrants any level of safety.]
A new GM crop — producing its own insecticide for instance — could now be rolled out without any safety check on thousands of hectares of farm land, with potentially great harm to pollinators.
NGT crops will also be patented. The consequences for farmers of patented crops are well-known. At times when thousands of farmers hit the streets calling for better revenues, the dependence on pesticide and seed firms like Bayer and BASF is a sensitive issue.
In the council, this is where it's currently blocked as governments have become wary about increasing market power of corporations like Bayer, Syngenta or BASF.
The Belgian presidency, with this issue being led by Liberal agriculture minister David Clarinval, seems intent to get Poland, one of the countries having strong doubts about what the NGT proposal will mean for farmers, to change its views.
That is why as we speak, biotech corporations are very busy targeting EU governments and staff of their Brussels' embassies with empty-bag proposals to ease these concerns.
However, patents are granted under the European Patent Convention, which is not an EU treaty. The European Patent Office in Munich already confirmed recently that NGTs are GMOs, and are therefore patentable.
EU decision makers are now facing another, so far underestimated, problem. As soon as NGT crops are traded across borders, the absence of any risk assessment and labelling of NGTs makes the EU and each member state fully in breach with the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Even when NGTs or GMOs are difficult to detect, they are still bound by the agreements under the Cartagena Protocol. This protocol is one of the pillars of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and being in non-compliance would greatly affect the credibility of the EU in international fora on biodiversity.
As a result, the export of EU agricultural products might get hampered as the safety of NGT crops has not been demonstrated, and labelling and traceability rules are not in place. This can create disputes as trade partners will not be notified nor provided with sufficient information on what the EU is exporting, as the protocol requires.
Let's be honest: this proposal is a gift to those corporations who want to increase their market share for commercial seeds. And let's not be naïve: companies like Bayer and BASF are not likely to turn agriculture pesticide-free with new crops.
MEPs better take these issues in consideration when deciding how to vote this week, because the Polfjärd report is rushed, not well thought-out, and clearly not serving the public.