On July 5, 2023, the European Commission proposed the deregulation of GMOs in the European Union in order to satisfy the biotech industry’s unquenchable thirst for efficiency and speed to market. For three years, the GMO industry has been lobbying key E.U. commissioners for just such deregulation, regardless of the fact that the E.U. had already established clarity and consistency on defining, labeling, testing and monitoring GMOs just five years ago.
Words matter. What the biotech industry has been doing for some time is trying to find some other word for GMOs that might allow them to work around public resistance and scientific concern about genetic engineering in our food networks — to essentially relitigate GMOs, and to do it with unfamiliar language, refreshed PR hype and newer genetic engineering technologies. This would allow them to circumvent established regulations, public opinion and independent safety reviews.
In Europe, at the regulatory level, “New Genomic Techniques” (NGTs) is the neologism, and it’s meant to draw a hard line between earlier generations of GMOs and new ones. At the same time, the biotech industry has updated its familiar benefit claims. Whereas old GMOs were going to feed the world’s growing population and increase farmer yields, new GMOs are now allegedly going to boost the nutrients in our foods and help agriculture resist the effects of climate change. The agricultural biotech industry has a legacy of empty promises, declining soil health and loss of biodiversity, not to mention corporate colonialism worldwide. Are they really going to undo the damage they have done with more, allegedly “better” GMOs?
GMO developers use advanced technology of all kinds to violate and manipulate the building blocks of life at the genomic level. That’s why the European Union has already established a simple and clear definition of GMOs, and it includes foods produced by “gene-editing” techniques like CRISPR. In 2018, Europe’s highest court explicitly defined GMOs in a way that was consistent with the most credible and authoritative language on GMOs in the food industry: the Codex Alimentarius and the subsequent Cartagena Protocol. The unsubstantiated benefits and potential risks of newer forms of genetic engineering do not justify a new definition, nor do they justify a new regulatory framework to satisfy an industry’s desire for more profit sooner.
The effort to redefine and deregulate GMOs is misguided. Most troubling is the effort of GMO companies and their government advocates to evade public scrutiny down to the level of farmers and shoppers. For some new GMOs, the E.U. Commission would remove safeguards that keep GMOs separate from non-GMO and organic seed and food networks that rely on identity preservation, traceability and segregation of ingredient supply lines.
And for shoppers, some labeling requirements go away, undermining public trust in organic and non-GMO certifications because now they could contain undisclosed genetically engineered ingredients. In a highly globalized food economy, this robs sovereignty from farmers and shoppers alike — especially for those who wish to support the non-GMO, organic and regenerative movement. Results already show that this is the right path forward for rebuilding soil health, mitigating climate change, increasing nutrient density and supporting farming communities without the risks, secrecy and corporate control of biotech food development.
There are many persistent reasons to be wary of genetic engineering in food systems, and the sphere of concern goes far beyond whether such foods are safe for human physical health. What do they really mean for local and regional biodiversity? What is the impact on farming communities when they grow vast monocrops controlled by private corporate interests? What are the known and unknown risks of off-target effects and environmental contamination? Where is the outcome-based evidence for all the benefit claims around land use, pesticide reduction, carbon sequestration and social and economic equity?
At the very least, the E.U. should empower shoppers to avoid GMOs if they want to through required labeling, with no exceptions for GMOs by any name. The unproven, aspirational benefit claims of GMO developers are already being achieved through non-GMO, organic and regenerative agricultural practices that work with nature, not in isolation from it. New GMOs are a path backward, not forward.