A majority of European consumers want to see compulsory labelling on food products containing genetically modified crops, according to a recent Ipsos report, but industry players insist that this is impossible to implement.
The report, commissioned by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament and carried out by the polling organisation Ipsos, surveyed thousands of consumers across all 27 member states between February and March of this year in an attempt to gauge their understanding and attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) crops.
This included both “conventional” genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which involves the genetic transfer between different species, as well as gene edited (GE) crops, created using new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR.
It found that, of those which have heard of the technology, 86% of people want food containing GMOs to be labelled accordingly, while 68% of respondents that have heard of new genomic techniques would also like these to be clearly labelled.
While 78% of those surveyed had heard of GM crops, only 40% on average across all EU member states reported prior knowledge of GE crops.
As it currently stands, EU legislation stipulates that GM food must be clearly labelled, stating that, in the case of pre-packaged GM food/feed products, the list of ingredients must indicate “genetically modified” or “produced from genetically modified [name of the organism]”, while non-packaged products require a notice nearby.
However, products from animals fed with GM crops are exempt from GMO labelling.
The report comes amid heated debate over the future of the technology after a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling found that GE crops fall, in principle, under the EU’s GMO directive.
However, the outcome of this ruling has since been heavily disputed, with industry players pushing for the decision to be revised so as to exclude GE crops from the scope of EU regulations governing GMOs.
This would include labelling rules, something the Greens/EFA warn would deprive consumers of their right to know how their food is produced, and leave them “no opportunity to avoid GM food”.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission official said that the next step for the EU executive will be the publication of a study on new genomic techniques, which aims to clarify the situation in light of the 2018 court ruling.
“The Commission is currently finalising the study which had been requested by the Council,” the official said, highlighting that issues such as consumers’ perception will be addressed in it.
The study is expected to be published at the end of April.
Martin Häusling, agricultural policy spokesman for the Greens/EFA Group, said that the Commission “must respect the will of consumers and ensure that existing rules are applied and that to label animal products that have been fed GMOs, including new methods of genetic engineering”.
“We demand that the same rules for authorisation and labelling apply to all types of genetically modified organisms,” he said, stressing that consumer protection means “freedom of choice and transparency about whether our food has been produced with genetic engineering, be it old or new methods of genetic engineering.”
Contacted by EURACTIV, the EU consumer group BEUC declined to offer a direct comment on the subject.
However, their position paper on the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, which notes the potential role that “innovative techniques, including biotechnology” may play in increasing the sustainability of food production, the organisation highlights that “traceability and labelling of products produced using these [gene editing] techniques must guarantee consumers’ right to know and freedom of choice.”
They add that a lack of labelling of these products would risk “eroding consumer confidence in organic food,” pointing out that this would run counter to the strategy’s objective to stimulate organic food production and consumption in the EU.
There is a will, but is there a way?
Asked about the feasibility of labelling GM food this way, EU seed sector organisation Euroseeds told EURACTIV that it is “not aware of any practical strategies that could be used for clearly identifying conventional-like gene editing products, when such products are part of commodity flows.”
Garlich Von Essen, Euroseeds secretary general, stressed that non-unique changes in the genome could also occur naturally or through conventional breeding methods.
“As we are of the opinion that these products do not constitute transgenics and are thus fundamentally different from and should not be regulated as products falling under the GM Directive, we see no value or justification for putting respective conventional-like genome editing plant varieties under the labelling obligations of the current GMO directive,” he said, warning this could lead to a “discriminatory situation”.
Likewise, centre-right MEP Herbert Dorfmann, who is the agriculture coordinator of the centre-right Europe’s People Party (EPP), recently told EURACTIV in an interview that he is frequently in contact with scientific experts on the matter who maintain that it is not possible to differentiate between GMOs and GE crops.
“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.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]