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The EU’s dangerous climbdown over Frankenfoods

A new proposal will make it easier to farm and sell genetically modified crops - and campaigners are aghast

Photo: The New European

“People want to know what they eat,” says Antonio Onorati whose farm is just outside Rome – 18 km from St Peter’s, to be precise.  “If you say no traceability, they start to be suspicious.”

Everything the Onorati family farm produces, from olives to apricots, from walnuts to cherries and local-bred lamb, is organic and free from genetically modified organisms. For those who agree with Antonio that transparency and labelling of all GMO food is a basic right, take note — it could soon fall by the wayside. 

This week, the European Commission announced a proposal to loosen EU rules on GMOs. Plants that have had up to 20 genetic modifications which could conceivably have occurred naturally or by conventional breeding will be passed as safe and the food products they are used to make will be sold without warning labels. But some GMO plants that don’t qualify could be passed safe too, should they fit certain green criteria – they are more tolerant to climate change or need less water or fertiliser, for example. 

The Commission claims this move – which now has to be scrutinised and ratified by the EU parliament – will allow farmers to develop more resilient crops with higher nutritional value while reducing the use of chemical pesticides. Critics say it will leave European farming dependent on new super-strains of plants developed by big agribusiness, while consumers will no longer know that what they eat has been genetically modified.

Onorati and farmers like him across Europe will tell you that this is the latest battle in a dirty political conflict over GM food. In the UK, Brexit was promoted by Boris Johnson as, among other things, a means to free Britain from “anti-genetic modification rules”. Johnson may have gone, but rules that allow “precision-bred organisms” — as the UK government calls them — to be patented and sold unlabelled, passed into UK law back in March. These GM products are now sold in Britain unlabelled, because in DEFRA’s view, these modified plants and animals could have derived from natural processes. Now, the same criteria is being promoted by the EC.

The deregulation of genetically modified organisms has the broad support of farming unions in the UK. It is opposed by the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, but the Internal Market Act may mean such unlabelled food from England, could appear in shops across the UK. Two surveys for the Food Standards Agency and a YouGov poll found around 80 per cent of people in the UK want GM food clearly labelled.

“If companies who develop GMOs are so convinced this is a good thing, why do they want to hide it, so that consumers don’t have the transparency to decide what they eat?” asks Mute Schimpf, a food rights campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe. 

Some 2,000 miles north of where Onorati’s organic durum wheat and barley ripen under the Italian sun, 31-year-old Tove Sundström runs a community-supported farm in Jämtland, central Sweden. The local soil is good for her potatoes, kale, cabbage, carrots, onions, celery, beets, beans and peas.

“If it was risk-free and something everybody could do – no one had patents, it was free and it was successful – I don’t think I would have ethical issues. But that’s not the case,” says Sundström, a postgraduate of the five-year horticultural science programme at Sweden’s Agricultural University.

Sundström and Onorati are part of the Via Campesina movement (it means “Peasants Way” in Spanish), representing the rights of 200 million small- and medium-size farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples, rural women and landless workers in 81 countries around the world. Its 31 member organisations in Europe oppose the deregulation of GM food. Two-thirds of the EU’s agricultural workers are in the GMO-free sector so this matters.

When Johnson offered deregulation of food standards as one of his Brexit benefits, he said that, when it came to GM foods, “it is time we looked not at the risks but at the opportunities that are upon us.” But whose opportunities? Whose risks?  

“Who stands to gain and who to lose?” asks Steve Jacobs from the Organic Farmers and Growers group. “The world’s farmers,” he says, don’t want GM technology, but instead “need better access to agro-ecology.” These are methods relating to sustainable farming and working with nature. “Proponents of biotechnology who stand to earn considerable sums from the patenting of that biotechnology – that’s entirely their right. One wonders whether that’s a suitable fit in our food systems.”

And what of the “risks”? Defra says the scientific advice is clear: gene-edited organisms pose no greater risk than other foods. But in a recent open letter, more than 100 scientists and policy experts disagreed. 

Among them is Dr Michael Antoniou, lead geneticist in gene expression and therapy at King’s College London in the department of medical and molecular genetics. He characterises the genetic makeup of any animal or plant as like an ecosystem. “What’s being ignored is the fact that the changes that happen through the whole process of gene editing result in completely different spectrums of unintentional DNA changes.” 

Antoniou and Hilbeck also dispute the claim that DNA is not added when editing within species. “Organisms can transfer genetic material. Viruses do this all the time but they’re doing it in a much more sophisticated manner than we are,” says Hilbeck.

Antoniou cites cows that had been modified to be hornless, which were found to contain bacterial DNA that had been inserted during the editing procedure. The rogue DNA included genes that confer resistance to three antibiotics. The danger is that disease-causing bacteria could pick up these antibiotic-resistance genes and escape through dung into the wider environment.

Antoniou emphasises that treating a disease with gene therapy has much stricter protocols: “The unintended genetic effects that can arise through gene editing are acknowledged in a clinical context, so the technology is tightly regulated.

“In contrast, the massive, large-scale unintended DNA damage that arises during the process of gene editing in foodstuffs, especially crops, is being ignored or downplayed.” Such changes, he says, could lead to the production of novel toxins and allergens.

Andreas Heissenberger who heads the Landuse and Biosafety team in Austria’s Environment Agency, says: “There is not enough experience with these techniques and not sufficient data to guarantee their safety for humans and the environment.” He believes the EU’s current risk assessments and labelling requirements should remain.

Yet Onorati worries about the effect of Westminster’s permissive legislation. “They will say we have a lot of interchange in food production with the UK — in and out, and say — if we want to compete, we will have to follow the same rules.”

Welfare campaigners, meanwhile, have serious concerns about the UK government’s “phased” approach for animals and livestock in agriculture and aquaculture. “It is taking the gene-edited animals out of the lab and putting them into farms and onto supermarket shelves,” says Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming.

Antoniou describes pigs in South Korea who had a gene controlling muscle growth destroyed. “Their muscles grow grotesquely large, so you see these highly-deformed animals.”

Critics also reject arguments that gene-edited crops are the way to avoid spraying. Past experience with cotton genetically modified to express its own pesticide found the pests just evolved, says Schimpf, with opportunistic ones filling the breach and old ones becoming resistant.

“New GMOs don’t tackle the underlying pressure which forces farmers to use pesticides,” explains Lars Neumeister from not-for-profit Foodwatch. “They simply present a “new” technology in the same system.”

Consumer power rejected GMOs last time in the UK and one retailer, Marks and Spencer, has confirmed it does not permit the sale of gene-edited food and has no current plans to do so. But the European Commission’s proposal reopens the battleground some campaigners have been fighting on for years.

This new attempt to relax rules across the EU will face stern opposition. MEPs such as Germany’s Martin Häusling from the progressive Greens and European Free Alliance want the 2018 ruling on gene-edited organisms to stay. “Our EU laws should not be weakened in any way,” he says.

If that happened, farmers, food producers, retailers and consumers wouldn’t be able to reject GM products or opt for GM-free choices, says Häusling. “That is unacceptable, and we will stand firm to prevent that.”

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