Genetic engineering researchers demand new genetic engineering law
by Leo Frühschütz (comments: 0)
Leading scientists from 85 biotechnology research institutions in Europe are calling for European genetic engineering legislation to be amended and genetically modified plants to be exempted from its approval regulations. But their argumentation encounters resistance and European policy has its own roadmap.
For months now, genetic engineering researchers have been up in arms about the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that procedures such as CRISPR/Cas and products manufactured with them are generally subject to genetic engineering law. Their position paper states that this ruling would slow down the new breeding methods in Europe "with enormous effects on society and the economy". The EU release directive, which the ECJ interpreted in its decision, is described as an outdated legal framework which does not take current scientific findings into account and must therefore be amended.
Genetic engineering critics warn of unwanted side effects and conflicts of interest
The genetic engineering researchers argue that genetic engineering methods such as the CRISPR/Cas genetic scissors can be used to produce tailor-made plants that make sustainable agriculture possible: They would require fewer fertilizers and pesticides, be resistant to drought or saline soils, and provide higher yields to feed growing humanity. New breeding techniques would be as safe as conventional breeding, but much faster, as long as no foreign genes are inserted.
Recently, mainly new genetic engineering methods have been discussed. However, genetic engineering companies continue to rely on plants that are resistant to herbicides and insect pests using classical genetic engineering methods.
The argumentation of the genetic engineering researchers is not new, replies agricultural ecologist Angelika Hilbeck from ETH Zurich: "The same arguments were put forward 30 years ago by the same genetic engineering circles in order to bring the first and still conventional genetic engineering techniques onto the market without regulation. And further: "Those who do not want regulation duck away from responsibility and want to deprive the public of the opportunity to monitor the consequences of the introduction of novel, patented organisms". In previous statements, the scientific association ENSSER (European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility), of which Hilbeck is board member, has already rejected the claim that the new technologies are precise and only produce the intended and desired effects. Published studies show that unexpected and undesirable side effects occur regularly.
Testbiotech managing director Christoph Then points out that the researchers and their institutes "do not do research in a ‘vacuum’, but have their own special interests, for example in funding and patent applications". This is legitimate, but it leads to a conflict of interests when it comes to assessing risks and regulating new technologies. "The institutes should therefore clearly state their respective interests when signing the call and not focus on adaptation to climate change as the main motive," Then said. It is also about research funds and licensing revenues.
Call for a change in genetic engineering law
As early as August, the German Bio-Economy Council had called for a change in EU genetic engineering law in a position paper - with the same arguments as the European genetic engineering researchers are now putting forward. At the time, the association ‘Food without GM technology’ wrote: "If future products have as many advantages as the Bio-Economy Council claims, authorisation procedures and labelling will not prevent their market success". Therefore, the association asked the question: "What can be made of a technology whose products can supposedly only succeed if they do not go through an authorisation procedure and remain invisible to breeders, farmers, feed and food producers and consumers?
No intended amendment to the release directive
The European Commission and leading member states such as Germany share the arguments of the genetic engineering researchers. They, too, have been hit between the eyes by the ECJ ruling. Nevertheless, there will probably be no attempts in the coming months to change EU genetic engineering legislation. The EU Commission sees the member states as responsible for implementing the ruling of the European Court of Justice and has no reason to become active itself, the French portal inf'OGM reported at the end of September with reference to Commission sources.
"The Commission is currently analysing the ruling and is in talks with the EU Member States about possible consequences. Most recently, there were discussions on this during the meeting of the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed on 23/24 October", the Commission informed the Information Service on Genetic Engineering and referred to its work programme for 2019. It does not include an amendment to the Release Directive. There would hardly be time for that. At the end of May 2019 the European Parliament will be elected and in October 2019 the current Commission will hand over the official duties to its successors. A possible amendment to EU genetic engineering legislation will therefore be a topic in the election campaign and will force the parties to position themselves clearly - if the voters demand it.