As the European Commission is considering how to regulate genetically modified (GM) products created with new GM technology, Eleonora Evi argues that the EU must continue to label all GM food as such, regardless of the technology used to produce it.
Eleonora Evi is a Green MEP.
A recent EU-wide opinion poll commissioned by the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament shows that the vast majority (86%) of Europeans who have heard of genetically modified (GM) crops want food produced from these plants to be labelled as such.
The majority (68%) of respondents who have heard of new GM techniques, such as CRISPR, want food produced with these techniques also labelled as GM.
The poll confirms the Commission’s view that Europeans want detailed information about the food they buy, be it on the nutritional quality or the place and method of production.
The Commission has announced mandatory, front-of-pack nutritional information and said it would develop a “sustainable food-labelling framework” that also covers the environmental and social aspects of food production.
Against this backdrop, it should go without saying that the EU can only expand food labelling rules, not remove existing requirements.
However, this could happen if the EU were to exclude certain GM crops engineered with new GM technology from the scope of its GMO regulations. GM seed producers like Bayer and Corteva are asking for that.
Their industry association argues that some GM plants contain genetic changes that could also occur naturally or through conventional breeding methods, and that it would be “discriminatory” to subject them to the EU’s GM labelling rules.
What they fail to mention is that these GM plants will also contain additional DNA changes, and that GM developers usually skip the extensive screening that is necessary to find these unpredictable genetic errors.
Some politicians have gone further and said that GM labelling is “simply not possible” for such GM plants, regardless of what Europeans want, because you cannot tell how a given crop was created – with GM technology or through traditional breeding.
Labelling relies on traceability systems
The truth is, consumer labelling is possible whether or not you can use laboratory methods to determine the origin of a product.
Can you use a laboratory method to know whether an apple was grown according to organic standards? No. Can you label it as certified organic? Yes. Can you use a laboratory method to know whether an egg was obtained from a hen held in a small battery cage, rather than a hen that has access to open-air runs? No.
Can you label the egg as such? Yes – that is even mandatory in the EU. Finally, can you use a laboratory method to know whether Trentino apples are really from the Trentino region? No. Can you label them as such? Yes, because they have a Protected Geographical Indication in the EU.
For consumer labelling to work, you just need a reliable traceability system, that’s all.
Such a system already exists for GM food. That is good because it is impossible to establish in the laboratory whether highly processed foodstuff such as vegetable oil comes from GM plants. The EU still requires that it is labelled as GM, and nobody would claim that this cannot be done.
Detection of gene-edited GM food is possible
Of course, the EU still needs a way to identify products created with gene editing. This is particularly true because GM developers are not always forthcoming with that information.
The good news is that it is possible to find these products using laboratory methods. NGOs and food companies have presented an open source detection test for gene-edited rapeseed sold by US company Cibus in the US and Canada.
The test is based on standard GMO detection technology, and it was developed based on publicly available information on the product. The test has been criticised for not showing that a GM method was used to create the GM plant. But that is unnecessary as there is sufficient information in the public domain to document that.
In summary, we need two things to be able to reliably apply the EU’s GM labelling rules to gene-edited crops.
First, we need a traceability system, such as that which already exists for GM food. The producers of GM crops must be obliged to document whether their products are gene-edited or not – just as producers of eggs are obliged to document whether their hens are ‘free range’ or held in battery cages.
The easiest way to do that is a public register that is mandatory for all GM products that are released into the environment.
Second, we need more research efforts on the part of public authorities to make sure gene-edited products can be found. Authorities should not only use existing tests – they should also establish further tests for known gene-edited products, or obtain them from the industry. (Cibus has submitted a detection test to the Canadian authorities, for example.)
Authorities should also commission laboratory work to find ways to identify other gene-edited products.
Whether or not we can put a GM label on gene-edited food is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of putting in the effort to comply with existing EU laws and fulfil consumers’ rightful expectation that GM food is labelled as GM, regardless of which GM techniques were used to produce it.