The new EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides recently told EURACTIV.com that her “priority is to gather more information” on gene editing. To this end, she said, “we will be preparing a study on new genomic techniques, foreseen for spring 2021”. Clearly, the design and set-up of such a study will be crucial to its outcome, writes Nina Holland.
Nina Holland is a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory.
On 10 February 2020, DG SANTE will hold a ‘targeted stakeholder consultation’ to discuss the set-up of this policy study on ‘new genomic techniques’.
However, only Brussels-based organisations have been invited and the list of invitees shows an enormous bias towards industry interests. Out of 94 organisations invited, more than 70% represent industrial food and farming interests, contrasting with fewer than 12% of NGOs.
Such a biased set-up raises concerns that the study is being designed to deliver a pre-determined conclusion.
Over the past decade, the biotech industry has made relentless attempts to get genome editing techniques deregulated. This would mean no risk assessment, no monitoring, and no consumer labelling.
On the other hand, NGOs, Via Campesina, the international organic farming movement IFOAM and others have repeatedly called on the EU institutions to implement the ECJ ruling swiftly for the sake of biosafety, environment, and consumers’ and farmers’ right to choose GM-free agriculture.
Indeed, in July 2018 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that products from these techniques do not have a history of safe use, and therefore must be regulated as per all other genetically modified products.
For the new Commission’s ambitious plans – the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy – to have even a chance to succeed, there needs to be an end to the corporate capture of decision-making, which is regrettably so commonplace in Brussels.
But with this stakeholder exercise on a very contentious issue, the Commission is further amplifying the voices of agrochemical-biotech multinationals like Bayer/Monsanto, BASF, Corteva (DowDuPont), and Syngenta.
According to the list of 94 invited organisations, these corporations will be represented multiple times via different lobby channels.
For example, their interests are being defended by the following six industry associations: the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Association (EFPIA), European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio), European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), European Seeds Association (ESA), and AnimalHealth Europe.
In fact, some of them will also be represented by industry lobby groups such as FoodDrinkEurope, ePURE, Plants for the Future ETP, or the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking.
The European Plant Science Organisation represents a number of research institutes, some of whom have close ties with the same companies. For instance, the Flemish Biotechnology Institute VIB has Bayer and BASF on its board.
In addition, lobby groups representing all imaginable agri-business subsectors have been invited: from flowers to fish processing; from cosmetics to poultry; and from agricultural machinery to pesticides.
In stark contrast, the organic farming sector and the farmers’ organisation Via Campesina have been offered only 4% of the available spaces. This is despite the fact that the new Commission has made public statements that it would promote organic agriculture. Only 11 environmental, consumer and food NGOs have been invited, adding up to less than 12% of the total invites.
If Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Vice-President Frans Timmermans, and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides really want their flagship initiatives to succeed, they would be well advised to stop conducting business as usual in Brussels.
Instead, they should consult with independent experts who have, since the ground-breaking 2008 report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, been publishing informed proposals to create the much-needed paradigm shift in agriculture.