Agricultural authorisation body in meltdown over ‘new GMOs’

GMO crops being grown in a laboratory. [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

The French High Council for Biotechnology (HCB) is shedding members. Seven associations have left the organisation, claiming their opinions on new plant breeding techniques, or “new GMOs”, were ignored. EURACTIV’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

Following the resignation of Yves Bertheau, of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, and Patrick de Kochko, the coordinator of the French Peasant Seed network (Réseau Semences Paysannes), from the HCB, seven associations announced on Wednesday (13 April) that they suspended their membership of the Council in February.

The cause of this exodus was a memo on new plant breeding techniques (NPBT), which first appeared as an ‘opinion’, and then as a ‘provisional report’.

This memo was published in early February and recommended that the products derived from most of these new plant breeding techniques be exempt from the European Directive on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

This would lead to significant changes in terms of authorisation and traceability, as well as labelling. And it would allow the biotechnology industry to bypass the obstacles it had to endure in the authorisation of GMOs.

Bitter conclusion

In a press release published on Thursday (14 April), the seven associations said they had reached the “bitter conclusion that the whole debate on the question of ‘new GMOs’ was forcibly cut short by the HCB.

“Despite a number of failures, we have regularly tried to bring the voice of civil society into this organisation. This was a wasted effort, because the HCB, with the collusion of the French government, spurns any opinion that contradicts the interests of the GMO industry.”

This memo eventually attracted the attention of the French Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, which responded on 22 February, saying they had carried out a “first analysis” of  NPBT products in regard to the GMOs Directive.

For the associations, the situation is clear. “The French government is using a completely prejudiced scientific opinion, cloaked in a civil society consultation that was never fully carried out. This warped opinion has also been presented to the European Commission as the official French position.”

Deep regret

Contacted by the Journal de l’Environnement, the President of the HCB, Christine Noiville, said she accepted the resignations with “deep regret: these associations, which are among the 33 members of the HCB’s Economic, Ethical and Social Committee (CEES), where they greatly enrich the debate”.

Their decision to leave the HCB is “a kind of protest, a show of discontentment, because they believe they do not have enough influence on public decision-making”, she said, adding that the HCB would remain “a place of debate and contemplation and would not become a tool of political advocacy”.

But the High Council’s work on NPBT products got under way again just three weeks ago.

“The door is still open for those that have left, and I invite them to come back to the discussion table. But the work must go on in their absence if we are to achieve the most transparent set of recommendations possible,” Noiville said.

But according to de Kochko, the HCB’s work slowed down significantly in 2012 after several pro-GMO members resigned from the CEES, including the French National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (FNSEA) and other representatives from the agricultural sector.

What next?

So what about the ministerial letter supporting this contentious memo?

“The ministers are fully aware that this is a ‘provisional report’, and that the HCB’s work on a definitive opinion is on-going,” said Noiville.

According to the HCB president, the regulatory status of NPBT products has not yet been finalised, in spite of what the provisional report, and then the ministerial letter, may suggest.

Aside from the regulatory status of NPBT products, which Noiville insists is still being discussed, the HCB president said the organisation would “deepen [its] consideration of some other points, including the traceability of NPBT products, consumer information, the legal protection of techniques and products, and the prospective examination of techniques and their impacts on plant selection methods”.

Frédéric Jacquemart, a former member of the CEES and president of the International Group of Interdisciplinary Studies (GIET), cast a disillusioned eye over the whole episode, which he described as “patent manipulation”. This, he said, was down to increased pressure from the agricultural industry over NPBT products, in exchange for a cease-fire on classic GMOs.

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