In a bold move, the European Commission proposed in July 2023 to deregulate a substantial number of plants produced through new genetic techniques, stirring a contentious debate among EU members. Despite the Spanish presidency’s fervent efforts to broker a consensus, EU nations remain divided over the plan. If the proposal gains approval, these genetically modified plants would be treated akin to conventional plants, exempting them from safety tests and the mandatory labelling of genetically modified food products.
The European public has long held reservations about genetically modified food, citing concerns about corporate influence, potential health risks, and environmental impacts. Skepticism has persisted since the inception of this technology, with many Europeans insisting on thorough testing and clear labelling for crops developed using both traditional and new genetic methods.
The genesis of this proposal traces back to biotech firms successfully persuading the European Commission that embracing new genetically modified crops is a crucial step in addressing climate change. The argument posits that enhancing crops’ resilience to drought and improving carbon capture abilities could alleviate the challenges posed by climate change. However, critics argue that this proposition is too good to be true, revealing a well-orchestrated lobbying campaign by biotech firms.
In 2018, the European Court mandated the regulation of plants developed through new genetic techniques, treating them on par with other genetically modified organisms. Subsequently, biotech firms, in collaboration with research centres sympathetic to their cause, embarked on a mission to advocate for entirely new legislation. Their first strategic move involved rebranding their techniques, substituting terms like “gene editing” and “precision breeding” for the more controversial “genetic modification.”
By presenting their processes as advanced versions of natural occurrences, these firms sought to distance themselves from the negative connotations associated with genetic modification. The ultimate goal was to eliminate the need for labelling, a hurdle in selling their products amidst public disapproval.
A further prong of their strategy involved exploiting the urgency of the climate crisis, arguing that lengthy safety tests would impede innovation during a period of accelerating climate change. However, critics contend that terms such as “gene editing” and “precision breeding” are merely marketing tactics, providing no assurance of the accuracy of the techniques or ruling out potential negative effects.
Scientific studies indicate that new genetic techniques can cause alterations in a species’ traits to an extent unattainable through conventional breeding. Additionally, these methods may trigger unintended changes in the genetic material of plants, raising concerns about unforeseen consequences.
Despite biotech firms framing genetically modified plants as a solution to the climate crisis, critics argue that they represent a false solution, addressing the wrong question. The current agricultural model, largely dictated by agro-chemical giants like Corteva and Bayer, contributes significantly to climate change. These companies, having acquired Monsanto in 2018, are leading the race to secure patents on new genetic techniques and products.
Patents for soybeans with increased protein content, waxy corn, or herbicide-tolerant rice are among the examples, tailored for large-scale cultivation destined for the global market. However, this model relies heavily on fossil fuels for distribution, placing farmers in a state of dependence on machinery and inputs derived from non-renewable resources.
Research indicates that such industrial agriculture leads to soil depletion, biodiversity loss, and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases. Critics argue that the focus should shift from reinforcing this unsustainable model to restoring farmers’ livelihoods, biodiversity, and soil health. Only through such measures can farmers cultivate local climates that naturally store carbon and facilitate optimal conditions for food production without exerting undue pressure on the environment.
As the EU grapples with the decision to deregulate genetically modified plants, the debate intensifies, pitting environmental concerns against purported solutions to the climate crisis. The outcome remains uncertain, with the public’s skepticism and the need for sustainable agricultural practices at the forefront of the discourse.