This article is part of our special report Gene editing: The latest developments in the EU.
Labelling foodstuffs as gene-edited products is simply not possible as the genetic improvements brought about by the new breeding technologies (NBTs) are not identifiable, according to the Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann.
The lawmaker, who is the agriculture coordinator of Christian-democrat Europe’s People Party (EPP), told EURACTIV in an interview that he is frequently in contact with researchers and scientific experts on the matter who maintain that it is not possible to differentiate between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and NBTs.
The term NBTs describes a number of scientific methods used to alter genomes with the aim to genetically engineer certain traits into plants, such as drought tolerance and pest resistance.
Crucially, unlike traditional GMOs, which typically transfers genes between species, NBTs induce changes within the same species.
As such, Dorfmann said that experts maintain that it is impossible to differentiate whether a modification of a plant is done in the laboratory with NBTs or with conventional breeding techniques that have been used for decades, which induces changes into the genome via techniques such as ionisation.
“In my opinion, labelling is simply not possible and [without regulating gene editing] we will have plants, seeds that will come from outside Europe, where we don’t know which technology of genetic improvement was applied,” he said.
His comments come on the back of a study released by the Greens group at the European Parliament this week that found that the vast majority (86%) of respondents that have heard of GM crops want food containing genetically modified plants to be labelled as GMOs.
An independent advisory body of the European Commission, the European group on ethics in science and new technologies (EGE), released a report on gene editing recommending that traceability and labelling should only be required where the modification could not have occurred naturally through mutation or natural recombination with sexually compatible plants.
Debate on gene editing
The EGE’s report also concluded that there is a need for a wide societal debate based on democratic principles, Dorfmann is more sceptical about raising awareness on this technology, as it is difficult for consumers to evaluate it.
“Not all consumers have studied biology at university. It is like GMOs: if you ask consumers if they want GMOs, they answer no, but if you ask them what GMOs are, perhaps one in 10 would know,” he said.
The Green report found that only 40% of participants had heard of these techniques, and very few would say they know a little or more about them.
For the Italian MEP, while consumers are very open to new technologies when it comes to cars, mobile phones, and the medical sector, they tend to be suspicious about innovations in food.
“In Italy, for sure, NBTs is a major debate, while in other countries it might seem less intense,” he said, adding that Germany is showing some interest too.
He mentioned the PILTON, a joint research project with more than 50 German breeding companies discussing the potential of NBTs and the associated questions of access and use.
“It has become clear throughout Europe that one of the ways of meeting the challenges of reducing pesticide products is to have more resistant plants through genetic improvement,” he said.
Those opposed to the NBTs say that there is too much hype on this technology while more focus is need on lower hanging fruit, such as water-saving technologies.
While Dorfmann acknowledged that there are currently very few plants created using these techniques available, he added that the technology is still promising.
“If we want such a significant reduction as described in Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), we need speed, and classic genetic improvement does not work at these rates,” he said.
On the other side of the Channel, the UK is now moving to potentially open its doors to gene-editing after leaving the EU.
Asked what effect could have on the agricultural relationship with the UK, Dorfmann said that this push will put further pressure on the EU to finally regulate this issue.
“We have a European regulation that is 20 years older than these CRISPR/Cas9 technologies,” he said, adding that the EU cannot continue to simply turn a blind eye.
“The fact that the UK, a very important partner when it comes to food products, is introducing this technology and bring products to the European market while we are not making NBTs available to our farmers, seems to me to be madness,” he concluded.
[Edited by Natasha Foote]