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Green Biotech rEvolutions Newsletter
Table of Contents

Guest Opinion

Nathalie Moll  

EU Comitology reform threatens innovation in a Post-Truth World 

 

Dear Readers,

As the world is looking to Europe to lead on evidence-based decision-making, we must not let politics trump science. Decision-making processes for the approval of new products in the EU must provide legal certainty, and must be based on the best available science to promote growth, innovation, investment as well as consumer confidence and safety in the EU. Our press release and joint statement signed together with 18 European associations, published just ahead of the Commission’s legislative proposal to reform the decision-making system known as ‘comitology’, emphasise these concerns. 

Our concerns are still the same. The current system, which is poorly implemented for GM crops, already foresees up to two Member States votes on each safety-assessed product. The Commission has proposed to add up to two more votes, which would lengthen the procedure even further. Time and predictability are essential for company decisions and have a large impact on regional investment. 

We strongly agree that Member States should take their responsibility to vote in favour of approving market access for safety-assessed products. The hypocrisy of numerous EU Member States is remarkable: countries which refuse to vote in favour of GM import approvals, import GM soybeans roughly equaling the weight of their entire populations each year. Just for the record: trillions of GM meals have been eaten over the last 20 years without a single case of harm, and well over 2,500 individual GM approvals have been granted by numerous governments across the world. Politicians who continue to cast GMO safety and benefits into doubt – and deny their many benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment - should explain why they trust unfounded scaremongering more than actual facts from the European Academies of Science and other trusted EU institutions like EFSA. 

It is difficult to see how a more convoluted decision-making process will encourage countries to support innovation. The signal derived from multiple submissions of safety-assessed products to vote by Member States is not one of trust in the EU’s agencies and science. Hence, the Commission proposal does not promote evidence-based decision-making. The Commission could take a much clearer stance by defending the scientific opinions of the EU’s own agencies. 

While the European Parliament and Member States debate the comitology proposal, the Commission is legally obliged to implement the current EU legislation and decide on approvals of safe products within the legally determined timelines. We know that in Europe politics often trumps the science. How often will politics also break existing democratically adopted law?

Yours sincerely,
Nathalie Moll

Since 2010, Nathalie Moll has been the Secretary General of EuropaBio. After graduating with Honours in Biotechnology and Biochemistry from St Andrews University, Scotland, Nathalie has spent 20 years working for the biotech industry at EU and national level. In this role, she has worked towards improving awareness of biotech benefits and developing a more supportive legislative framework and operating environment for the industry and related sectors.

“We cannot afford the luxury of ignoring scientific advance because Luddites shout louder than the rest of us.”

Sir Richard Packer, former official with UK Ag Ministry & UK Permanent Representation to the EU.

“When “GM-free” becomes the equivalent of “risk-free,” we’ve officially entered an era in which fear plays a far greater role than unbiased statistics in telling the public what is and isn’t safe.”

– Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science

“The opt-out of science is being prepared.”

Prof. Klaus Jany, former head of the Molecular Biology Centre (MBZ) at the German Federal Food Research Institute (BFE). 

"There is a movement in Europe which is just against any genetically-modified plant used for food [and] that is so naive,"

Sir John Beddington, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government

“I am against a general demonisation of the new gene technology." 

Urs Niggli, reputable pro-organic scientist in Greenpeace Magazine Germany. 

A frosty reception: doomed to fail?  


The Commission’s proposal to reform comitology received a frosty reception, including from Member States. According to Politico, diplomats reacted by saying that “it is the duty of the Commission to implement EU law” and questioned the timing of the reform. Renowned expert Daniel Guéguen emphasised that the proposal clashes with Member States’ interests and is “doomed to failure before any talks have begun“. He also doubts how effective the Commission’s attempts will be to force Member States to vote yes or no, accusing the Commission of playing hot potato with the Member States. Sueddeutsche Zeitung was among the outlets relaying industry concerns about the “end of a science based system for research, innovation and investments”. DWN accused the Commission of “living in its own world”.

Convoluting complexity for transparency?

Not all Commissioners believe that the comitology proposal will solve perceived political challenges linked to product approvals: Commissioner Andriukaitis stated at the College of Commissioners “that the main problem was the public's lack of confidence in science (and) that a review of comitology procedures alone would not solve the problems.” Ironically, the proposal, which is said would increase transparency by making the votes of the Member States public, would add several layers of complexity to a system which many have criticised as being incomprehensible exactly because it is so complex. New voting rules would affect only the last stage of the procedure for product approvals (the appeal committee), in ways which would in all likelihood not change the traditional ‘no opinion’ outcome when it comes to GMOs. Two new referrals to the Member States would be added to the two existing votes. Whilst the comitology proposal offers complexity, EuropaBio is happy to offer more transparency on the counterintuitive voting behaviour of many Member States. Meanwhile, the Commission has not conducted the usually mandatory impact assessment for this proposal, despite a recent assessment showing that the Commission has not been correctly following its own procedures, and only half the EU’s legislative proposals announced in 2016 were subject to impact assessment.

Promoting scaremongering or evidence?

How did product authorisations become so politicised? Unfounded but well-funded scaremongering campaigns against GMOs have played a significant role. NGOs including radical anti-GMO organisations that also demonise trade have been helping themselves to millions of Euros of taxpayers’ money. Die Welt argued that Brussels and Berlin are strengthening their own enemies. In view of transparency concerns, the European Parliament held a workshop on “NGOs’ financing from the EU budget” on 6 February. It also published a study, which found that “It is often difficult to identify which organizations (…) are undertaking which activities or how funds flow between them.” The Risk Monger argues that NGO funding needs scrutiny. Meanwhile, the UK Parliament has decided to investigate fake news as a potential threat to democracy. National Review and Biotech Now Blog feature two articles entitled ”Post-Truth Science”. 

EU ‘will block’ GMOs from the UK. Really?

The Times reported that plans to grow GM crops in Britain could result in the EU blocking imports of the produce after Brexit, according to a leaked report. However, the EU has already authorised 55 different GMOs for import, and we import millions of tons. GM cultivation does look somewhat more likely for post-Brexit UK, as the UK continues to support science and released a “Brexit white paper” in early February, which states that “leaving the EU offers the U.K. a significant opportunity to design new, better and more efficient policies for delivering sustainable and productive farming.” We congratulate the UK for encouraging research, such as the decision to approve a field trial of ‘super yield’ GM wheat at Rothamsted Research, while field trials across the EU have decreased by over 90% during the last 6 years. The decision was covered in the Times, BBC and the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, an article in FG Insight shows support for GM crops by Conservative Party Leader Ruth Davidson in Scotland

USA to eliminate unnecessary burdens 

In the last weeks of the Obama administration, an overhaul of the United States GMO authorisation system was proposed. The stated goals included “to regulate at a level more commensurate with risk, to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens and to enhance development opportunities for small companies and universities who cannot afford to go through our current deregulation process”. Meanwhile, having largely expelled GM technology from Europe, the EU keeps increasing the burdens and timelines even for import authorisations. One research paper published in the Journal GM Crops & Food notes that the EU legislation on “GMOs” is in fact “between nonsense and protectionism.”  

Polish draft law discriminates against GMOs 

Polish media reports that Kukiz'15, an opposition party, has prepared a draft law on the use of high-protein crops in feed, which aims to reduce feed imports - primarily of GM soybeans - by setting a minimum content of domestic protein crops in feed sold in Poland. The proposed national indicative target would initially be 40% for 2017, but would increase to 70% and 90% in subsequent years. Meanwhile, the Polish Ministry of Agriculture is working on a draft law on GMO-free labelling. The draft has not been made public, and no public consultation is foreseen at the moment. As if discriminating against safety-assessed products were not enough, the Polish Civil Affairs Institute (INSPRO), alongside 19 European NGOs, recently signed a position that aims to further limit plant breeding innovation in the EU. The position calls on the European Commission to regulate so-called “New Breeding Techniques” (NBTs) as leading to GMOs, despite scientific evidence that shows they are similar or indistinguishable from varieties that could have been produced through earlier breeding methods. 

AgroBiotech Romania in favor of GM imports 

Nicolae Hristea, Executive Director of AgroBiotechRom, criticised the dysfunctional nature of the EU’s regulatory system for GM import approvals at the “Mediafax Talks about Farming” conference organised in February together with Agrointeligenta. The event, which included crop and livestock farmers, retailers, and MEPs, was posted live on Facebook.   Agrobiotechrom also published an interview titled “Biotechnology: a passport for the future” in the Jurnalul National, highlighting the importance of providing information to the public about biotechnology as a tool for feeding a growing population. More info here

Gene editing in legal limbo in Europe

According to a recent editorial in Nature, gene editing is “in legal limbo” in Europe. This may come as no surprise considering that the European Commission has not yet delivered any legal certainty on various innovative plant breeding techniques despite past promises that it would do so (such as made to the Finnish government in 2014). The European Court of Justice is expected to produce a final binding opinion on the interpretation of EU GMO law by 2018, but until then the uncertainty around the legal classification of plant breeding methods will significantly rise.  Meanwhile, the Commission’s Science Advisory Mechanism (SAM) is expected to deliver an explanatory memorandum by the end of March 2017, providing a description and comparison of relevant plant breeding techniques. The Nobel Laureate, Paul Nurse has recently joined the SAM team, which may be asked to develop more concrete statements. The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has produced a briefing paper  on NBTs that helps to explain the state of play of the discussion in the EU. The topic of gene editing has also been widely covered in ARTE broadcast.                  

Plant breeding debate finds fertile ground in Germany

A high level symposium organised by key scientific organisations in Germany in February asked the question: “Do we need a new definition for Genetic Engineering?” It also asked whether products of new plant breeding methods, such as CRISPR/Cas and TALEN, should fall under the GM definitions of the existing European legislation. A summary and excerpts of the symposium, including expert statements, can be found on the Leopoldina website and on Transgen. The debate has been on-going in Germany for quite some time. The plant breeder Stephanie Franck and the Green MP Harald Ebner traded views about plant breeding in ZEIT at the beginning of International Green Week in January, during which Franck made the case for enabling new technologies such as CRISPR/Cas. In the meantime, Greenpeace Magazine Germany also printed an interview with the reputable pro-organic scientist Urs Niggli who said: “I am against a general demonisation of the new gene technology”. Other positions and statements can also be found (in German) on TransGen

German law on genetic engineering criticised

A draft for the planned amendment of the German Genetic Engineering Act (18/10459), which addresses the issue of cultivation “opt outs” and “opt ins” in Germany and its regions, among other topics, has been criticised by experts. At a hearing of the parliament`s agricultural committee in January, experts complained that the draft was too complicated. While some state governments and NGOs have said that the current draft would make it difficult to enforce a ban on GM crops, scientists have complained that the draft law could block future innovation.

Regulatory predictability and incentives needed for Innovation 

The increased politicisation of regulatory decisions in Europe and around the globe is eroding confidence to continue to invest in solutions, writes CropLife International President and CEO Howard Minigh. The plant science industry currently ranks in the top four global sectors for the most investment in developing new products, and rightly so. Over the next 40 years the agriculture industry will need to expand food production to meet the needs of more than 9 billion people. Achieving this will require a continuous pipeline of new technologies to help farmers increase crop productivity, and for that to happen, we must insist on a predictable, science-based regulatory environment and strong data protection. As noted by Bernd Naaf, Head of Business Affairs & Communications for the Crop Science Division at Bayer Ag, innovation is critical for the next generation of farming, and the EU must play an important role to incentivise agricultural innovation.

UK Farmers Union report supports innovation 

The NFU conference in February saw the launch of the NFU report ‘Feeding the Future: Four Years On’. The report addresses the Government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, gene-editing and NBTs. The NFU include in their key research priorities the need to promote the development and uptake of precision breeding techniques, and to apply ‘all available genetic technologies to address high priority challenges facing British crop and livestock producers.’ Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom MP addressed the Conference, outlining her priorities for building ‘world-leading food and farming industries’, even after Brexit.  

Much ado about few plant patents

In February 2017, the EU Competitiveness Council adopted conclusions on legal protection of biotechnological inventions, welcoming the conclusions of the Commission Notice of 8 November 2016. The notice declared the products of plant breeding obtained by means of essentially biological processes non-patentable, and urged the EU Member States to advocate the alignment of the EPO with the conclusions of the Commission. As a next step, the Commission was requested to present a report on the development and implications of patent law in the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering in 2017. In the meantime, the EPO updated a publication on biotech patents showing that just 4% of all patents in the field of biotechnology relate to agriculture and the vast majority of these concern GM traits, which are patentable, and not such obtained by so-called essentially biological processes.

EFSA’s Chief defends science

In a recent interview published by Euractiv, EFSA’s boss Dr. Bernhard Url touched on heated political subjects, such as GMOs, new technologies for plant breeding, glyphosate, and public perception of scientific results. Talking about GMOs, Dr. Url defended the independence of EFSA as to the way they carry out risk assessments. In a separate interview in Politico, Url noted that green groups praise EFSA’s scientific approach if they like the outcome, but “discredit and shoot the scientist” if they don’t, referring to the dilemma as “cherry picking”. He was quoted as saying : “I think it’s a very short-sighted political game to say ‘Don’t trust scientific organisations’ knowing that basically only science can give answers … We have no other options than science unless we go back to medieval times.”

Young Greens open to GMOs

On 2 March, the Flemish Young Greens decided that “a sustainable framework for the deployment of GMOs should be possible”. They “concur with the conclusion (…) that genetic modification (GM) is not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding techniques”. They also rightly state that GMOs alone will not be able to end famine. Read the full article by the two co-presidents of the Flemish Young Greens here (in Dutch). 

Changing minds through science in Europe  

Despite being one of the main contributors to the development of agricultural biotechnology, Europe is falling behind. Undoubtedly, the never-ending battle to embrace innovation is linked to misperceptions about the safety and benefits of biotech. A recent article explores the Genetic Divide showing that differing public perceptions of safety exist between Europe and other parts of the world. According to The Honest Broker, research shows that citizens trust scientists more than ministers and politicians. So why are politicians and the public ignoring science and preventing innovation in the EU? A new Brussels Declaration develops principles for science and society policy-making that may offer solutions. 

GM cultivation vetoed by the non-concerned

The EU’s GMO opt out scheme has not unblocked the dysfunctional GMO approvals system for cultivation. Having banned their own farmers from growing the only GM crop approved for cultivation in the EU, a number of countries voted to prevent also Iberian farmers from accessing innovation. This confirms EuropaBio’s long standing opinion that the scheme is a ‘stop sign for innovation’ and a ‘non cultivation agreement’. The vote on 27 January 2017 on three GM maize products resulted in the usual ‘no opinion’ from Member States. France and Poland were among the countries voting against the science, Germany abstained as usual. However, Italy rather unexpectedly voted in favour, joining the UK and Spain who consistently support approvals of safe products. ”It is reassuring the UK is sticking to the science, as this gives biotechnology companies the confidence to invest”, commented Mark Buckingham from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. Overall, the vote was slightly more balanced than the last vote on GM cultivation. In light of more than 40 EFSA safety confirmations for these three products alone over approximately 15 years, the Commission is obliged to put the products to a second vote. We reiterate our comment that “it is time for Europe to finally apply the rule of law and go with the science instead of expelling an entire technology based on unfounded scaremongering. All we are asking for is that Europe correctly implement its existing GMO authorisation system“.

GMOs for the environment

Want to farm sustainably? Try growing GMOs and not going “GM-free”, argues John Parker, in an effort to counter some companies and marketers capitalising on anti-GM fear. US farmers have been challenging companies like Dannon, and French scientists have criticised supermarket’s GM-free policies. An opinion piece in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard argues that organic farming is not environment friendly. A concise recap of the 5 environmental benefits from GM crops is available here

GMOs most important for environment, say US farmers

98% of US farmers believe that GMOs are the most important factor in their ability to lessen environmental impacts on their farms, according to a recent survey. About 90% of North American farmers currently choose to grow GMOs.  

CAP consultation: commitment to innovation needed

What would be the best way to encourage innovation? This is one of the questions in the Commission’s current public consultation on the Common Agricultural Policy. In the multiple choice answers to choose from, there is no mention of improving access to agricultural technologies, including GM crops. The consultation closes on 2 May 2017, results will be published on the Commission’s webpage and communicated in a public conference in July 2017.

  • You’d Look Good in Designer Genes - Karen Batra (and Wall Street Journal)
  • 3 disease resistant GMOs could address climate change and save farmers billions – Genetic Literacy Project
  • Green Slime: Collusion between NGOs and Members of the European Parliament – Risk Monger
  • 2017 And Beyond: Experts Weigh In On GMOs & What Lies Ahead - GMO Answers
  • Hungry for solutions: the scientists trying to satisfy London's soaring demand for food – Evening Standard
  • Australian canola: European Union fuels demand – The Weekly Times
  • Bangladesh: Second GM crop ready for release – Daily Star
  • India - Sikkim's organic revolution at risk as local consumers fail to buy in - Guardian
  • India’s first GM food crop held up by lawsuit - Scientific American
  • GMO apple about to hit US market - Daily Courier
  • Western Australia will permit GM crops to be grown – ABC News
  • Despite Rise in Hunger, Zimbabwe Continues GMO Ban – Big News Network
  • Church Leaders in Nigeria support agri-biotech research – ISAAA
  • Proposed U.S. biotech rules raise industry hopes and anxieties - Science
  • New genetically engineered American chestnut will help restore the decimated, iconic tree – Phy.org  
  • Journalism under Attack – Issues in Science and Technology 
  • In your language:

Biotech timeline now also available in Portuguese

 

Biotechnology has been used for thousands of years! From making food such as bread and cheese to preserving dairy products and fermenting beer, biotechnology has helped society to evolve. Our timeline is now also available in Portuguese! If you missed the English version, click on the image!

Plant breeding innovation is helping to meet challenges



A new infographic from CropLife International shows how innovation in plant breeding is helping to produce seeds that can meet our food challenges, delivering significant benefits for consumers, farmers, and the environment.

Asia’s Food Heroes battle bugs through GM 



The growth and production of brinjal, also known as eggplant, is essential to farmers in Bangladesh. It is a primary source of income for poor farmers. Given its importance, scientists and farmers have teamed up to find both economically sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to tackle crop losses and increase farmers’ incomes. The introduction of Bt brinjal, a biotech plant developed to resist fruit and shoot borers, is helping farmers while reducing the need for insecticide applications. Find out more about Food Heroes in Bangladesh and throughout Asia here and under the hashtag #FoodHeroes

New Publications

 
  1. GMO Answers: factsheets now available in your language !
    1. Can GMOs help protect the environment?: now available in POLISH as well as English
    2. GMO Answers Informational Guide: now available in POLISH as well as English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French  
    3. Infographic: GMO Research, Review And Regulation:  now available in POLISH as well as English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French  
    4. Get to Know the Health and Safety of GMOs:  now available in POLISH as well as English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French     
  2. IIBN book release: Innovative farming and forestry across the emerging world
  3. New Books in French: “Pourrons-nous vivre sans OGM?”; “Ils croient que la nature est bonne”.
  4. Golden Rice – VIB fact series (also available in Dutch)

 

Contacts

EuropaBio is the European Association for Bioindustries. Our Secretary General is Nathalie Moll. The Green Biotechnology Team are Beat Späth, Chris Gallasch, Pedro Narro, Petra Kostolaniova and Violeta Georgieva.

For more information and our contact details
www.europabio.org

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