Last Tuesday, protestors gathered in the German city of Stuttgart to demonstrate against plans to deregulate gene editing technology and seed patenting, and for the right to choose GMO-free food. “Keep out of our fields and off our plates” was the slogan. Stuttgart may be home to Mercedes, Bosch and Porsche, but it’s also the constituency of Cem Özdemir, Green Party politician and currently Germany’s minister for agriculture.
In June, the EU Commission proposed to weaken the regulatory oversight for so-called “new genomic techniques” (NGT) such as CRISPR-Cas 9. The commission considers most plants created with NGT as being “equivalent” to conventional plants. While “traditional” or “old style” genetic modification (GM) introduces foreign DNA into a plant, gene editing supposedly is a precise technology that does not add DNA from a different species.
If the proposal by the Commission were to become law, the precautionary principle would no longer apply to gene edited crops. Farmers and consumers in the EU would be in the same situation as we have been here in Britain since March, when the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 was signed into law.
In the EU, the proposal by the EU commission still has to take two big hurdles: it will have to be approved by the EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers. That’s why a lot hinges on Cem Özdemir. The Austrian government has already made its opposition against the Commission’s proposal known and chances are that Özdemir, too, will oppose plans for deregulation.
The protest in Stuttgart was organised by an alliance for “farming without genetic modification”, but not just farmers are deeply worried. As in the US, consumers in Germany and other European countries regard genetically modified food with scepticism and want the right to choose whether to consume them or not. Many food companies have launched “GMO free” product ranges. EU legislation allows for the import of animal feed containing GM soy and maize, but milk, dairy and meat from animals raised on non-GMO feed command a premium and are popular among consumers.
The hope remains that MEPs and politicians such as the German agriculture minister take the concerns of farmers, food producers and consumers seriously and ensure that the Commission proposal never becomes law.
Without getting into the debate why NGT plants are not equivalent to conventionally bred plants, and why gene editing is not as precise as it is made out to be – two issues are key: gene editing is per definition a gene modification technique and should therefore be clearly labelled as such. And companies should have to provide specific detection methods with reference and control material to allow verification – something the Commission proposal at present does not require them to do. Only if there is transparency and labelling we will be able to keep NGT plants “out of our fields and off our plates”. Only a “non-GMO” label will give EU consumers the right to choose what they buy and eat.
But where are the protesters in the UK fighting for the “right to know” and the “right to choose”? The Genetic Technology Act is now the law. Researchers at Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre are free to conduct field trials on plants such as gene edited wheat that might make burnt toast less carcinogenic, potatoes that might be more blight resistant NGT, purple NGT tomatoes potentially richer in vitamin D, and NGT mustard greens possibly less bitter. But as of now, none of these NGT plants can be commercially grown in Britain, for that to happen the government has to publish “risk assessment guidelines” which are still being finalised. Which means there is still a lot to fight for. Before a government that just did a U-turn on green targets forces gene edited food down our throats, we could start to protest and assert a very fundamental right: the right to choose what we eat.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist and author writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years. Follow her on X at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent Mars Gilardone
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