Controversy Reloaded: GM 2.0 or the New Plant Breeding Techniques (NBTs)


In the coming weeks the European Commission will release a statement on the regulation of new plant breeding techniques (NBTs). Specifically, it will decide whether the EU GMO laws apply to the plant-related products of seven ‘new’ genetic engineering techniques. It is likely that the release of this draft regulation will renew controversies surrounding GMOs on the political agenda. If the decision is that these new breeding techniques create products that fall outside the definition of a GMO and therefore the European regulatory system, the organisms and foods produced with these NBTs could spread through the environment and enter the food chain untested, unlabeled and untraceable.

A majority of European citizens have repeatedly expressed their rejection of GMOs. In fact, the European legislation on GMOs, which was modified last year to allow Member States to opt out of the cultivation of GM crops, has long been considered an obstacle to the biotech industry. Within the largely GM-skeptical context of the EU, the decision on NBTs and the new draft has become a battleground. The drafting of new regulations offer the biotech industry a window of opportunity to change the rules of the game (i.e the definition of what a GMO is), exclude certain products of these new techniques from specific regulation (and make them unidentifiable for the public), and thus bypass the ‘annoying problem’ of the massive rejection of GMOs from European citizens.

Many of the arguments made by the biotech industry aim at deregulation by merely focusing on the outcomes and disregarding the processes involved in producing these novel products. Deregulation of the new techniques would place the products created by them in ‘black boxes’ and render them invisible and untraceable through agri-food systems. This would arguably erase the rights of European consumers to freedom of choice.

The following table, from to a report published by Corporate Europe Observatory on the biotech lobbies’ efforts to exclude the new techniques from regulation, reproduces the key industry arguments for the deregulation of new GM techniques and their contestations.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 15.47.34Click table to enlarge

At the core of all the industry arguments we find old-fashioned assumptions related to science, risk and modernity. The proponents of such deregulation seem to forget the knowledge acquired during the last decades on undesirable by-products of progress and techno-industrial development in the context of the global risk society we live in. Emanating from the biotech industry set of arguments, there is also a strong scent of a positivist and mechanistic understandings of science and scientific knowledge, based on a misconceived control over nature, in which the risks, uncertainties and unknowns are systematically downplayed or, directly, ignored. Of course, under this conception, the social implications (e.g. how the introduction of these new technologies will affect different food cultures, farmer’s lives, or other stakeholder’s of the agri-food system) are not within industry’s sight.

The unregulated mass release of these new products could entail unwanted and irreversible impacts for not only food safety, but also for our socio-ecologicial and agricultural systems. These new technologies are in their infancy and many uncertainties still remain. A moratorium on the commercialisation of these new products would allow more time to further investigate and understand the consequences they might entail, however industry lobbying is working strongly against any support for such a move. While many technical reports and legal analyses by government bodies and NGOs have concluded that these new emerging technologies should definitely not be excluded from existing EU GM regulations, we wait to see what the European authorities will decide for the fate of GM 2.0.

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