On 5 July, the European Commission published its proposal on plants obtained by certain new genomic techniques (NGTs). As the European organic movement, we consider this proposal misguided, dangerous for European seed autonomy, and a distraction from the agroecological solutions needed to move agriculture towards sustainability.

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While the proposal explicitly prohibits NGTs from organic production – in line with the position of the organic food and farming sector that no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), including those derived from NGTs should be used in organic production – it does not provide a clear basis to protect GMO-free and organic production with co-existence measures, nor to ensure a fair distribution of risks and burdens.

This is why we urge Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and governments to act to protect the freedom of farmers and consumers not to use or buy products from genetic engineering, and to prevent the monopolisation of genetic resources through patents.

Europe needs a systembased approach instead of quick-fixes

The proposal came a few days after IFOAM Organics Europe’s General Assembly adopted a resolution to keep organic GMO-free in favour of a system-based approach of innovation. In the resolution, an overwhelming majority of the European organic movement (97.69% of votes in favour, 2.31% against) re-affirms the demand of organic breeders, farmers, processors, certifiers, traders, and retailers to preserve their freedom of choice to remain GMOfree, including GMOs derived from these so-called New Genomic Techniques (NGTs).

As our President, Jan Plagge, put it: “Exempting certain NGTs from risk assessment, traceability and labelling is a step backward for biosafety and consumer information, and is unlikely to bring any benefit for sustainability. Rather, this proposal is a massive accelerator for a lucrative business model from the biotech and chemical industry. It seems that the European Commission unfortunately followed misleading industry promises and their business interests ahead of closing the dangerous loopholes in the patent rights framework. This is a bad day for the European model of a diverse farming and breeding sector. Now, the Council and Parliament should at least maintain traceability for NGTs all along the production chain, a legal basis for measures to ensure co-existence, as well as consumer information.”

Ensure the precautionary principle and freedom of choice

Consumers want to know how their food is produced, and expect that organic production is done without genetic engineering. In terms of sustainability, organic agriculture has been at the forefront of transitioning our agricultural systems to practices which are good for biodiversity and planetary health. But the success of our movement depends on consumers’ trust, and traceability and labelling of all GMOs are essential to protect the organic market and the reputation of organic products.

Consumers want to know how their food is produced, and expect that organic production is done without genetic engineering

For ‘Category 1 NGT Plants’, mandatory traceability along the entire production chain is eradicated and replaced by insufficient provisions for a public registry and seed labelling, which only provide minimal transparency at a breeding and farming level. This fails to deliver real co-existence measures, which depend on mandatory traceability from operator to operator up to the end consumer. The transparency provisions for these crops would place the economic and administrative burden of ensuring GM-free production, including additional identification, controls and tests, fully on the operators who do not wish to use them, without providing the proper basis to do so.

At IFOAM Organics Europe, we regret that the proposal on genetic engineering does not support an evidence-based and systematic approach to agriculture. It rather seeks to sacrifice the precautionary principle to make way for technological fixes with unproven benefits and potential unintended effects and risks.

In terms of consumer information and consumer freedom of choice, the Commission seems to have decided to address citizens’ skepticism by either eradicating end-product labelling for Category 1 NGT plants, so that consumers cannot know whether a product contains GMOs or not, or giving the industry the option to add voluntary additional information for Category 2 NGT plants. This lack of labelling and reliance on optional statements will decrease transparency, encourage greenwashing, and confuse consumers even more.

A threat to innovation and our genetic material

This Commission proposal on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) is a threat to the European model of innovation in breeding. NGTs will contribute to monopolising patents on genetic material in the hands of just a few companies. As long as there is no prohibition in EU law of patents on traits and genetic resources that can also be obtained by traditional breeding, traceability is essential to protect breeders and farmers from patents on seeds and to safeguard the possibility for a more systemic and truly sustainable approach to plant breeding.

The Commission’s proposal on NGTs undermines the EU’s ambitious environmental goals and innovation in the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork and the EU Biodiversity Strategies. The process leading up to the publication of this proposal was guided by misleading, empty industry promises of sustainability “potential”, at the cost of the precautionary principle, biosafety, and transparent information for both producers and consumers.

As the European organic movement, we call on MEPs and Member States to make sure that principles of risk assessment, traceability, and consumer labelling are applied to all GMOs, including crops derived from gene editing. If you are concerned about this, please voice your concerns to your local and national decision makers.

Author: Eduardo Cuoco, IFOAM Organics Europe Director

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Article Originally Published in NATEXPO 2023 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition