25 September 2015

US using TTIP as vehicle to attack European GMO laws

Far from defending further safeguards, the Commission moves to water-down risk assessment procedures for agri-biotech, prompting concerns from national regulators.

Bart Staes MEP & Maria Heubuch MEP

It is well documented that the US is pushing hard to gain access for agricultural biotech products to the European market, despite widespread opposition to GMOs in the EU. With the agri-industry sector set to make huge gains under a successful completion of a “comprehensive” Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), US negotiators are using the trade talks as a vehicle to push for changes to European regulations governing GMOs.

Aggressive lobbying by US

The lobby is often quite open. US-senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee said: “We will not agree with TTIP if it does not provide a good agreement for industrial agriculture."

According to Mr Mullaney, chief US negotiator for TTIP, the US introduced a proposal that would "allow US exporters to the EU to have their products tested and certified in the US and vice versa. This would reduce costs and eliminate duplicative testing requirements."

And last but not least US agriculture minister Vilnack said before Congress in April: “I guarantee you that we will start negotiating much more aggressively on GMOs and biotechnology.” Meanwhile, the EU’s Commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan, tried to reassure his transatlantic partners by stating that the nationalisation of decision-making on the cultivation of GMOs would speed up the adoption of GMOs at least in some parts of Europe.  

Member States’ competent authorities concerned

National experts dealing with the testing of GMOs in Austria, Germany and Norway were in the European Parliament in Brussels on September 15, for a public meeting hosted by MEPs Maria Heubuch (Greens, Germany), Maria Noichl (S&D, Germany), Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP, Finland) and Bart Staes (Greens, Belgium).  They expressed their concerns that the risk assessment by the advice- giving European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), used as reference by the European Commission, is not up to scientific standards.

While the EFSA has an extensive dialogue with biotech companies and relies heavily on their (non-disclosed) data, Member State regulators only have one phase in the risk assessment procedure where they can comment. Well-founded scientific comments from the national authorities are often neglected during the risk assessment carried out at European level and many risks are not assessed at all. There is no research available for instance on combinatorial effects (for example, between synthetic BT toxins) and the effects of a change in management practices due to pesticide-resistance, or on the possibility of uncontrolled spread, as the German expert Birgit Winkel explained. Her Austrian colleague Andreas Heissenberger made it very clear that the risk assessment by EFSA is based on an obsolete concept:. “Substantial equivalence is a concept which was introduced many years ago mainly for assessment of food and feed GMOs. However, this concept is a very narrow one and needs improvement, because there is a lack of clear definition and also a lack of development of the concept over time.”

It is particularly worrying that the researchers do not have adequate access to GMO materials for scientific purposes since patents protect GMOs. Therefore, critical and independent research on the environmental and health risks of GMOs is virtually impossible, as the Norwegian expert Odd-Gunnar Wikmark stressed.  

Sounds from science

The current EU risk assessment regime is portrayed as “sound science”, an unbiased process subject to the highest scientific standards, by both biotech-industry and the EU Commission. This needs to be fundamentally questioned, first of all because the very definition of “science” implies that experiments be reproducible. By systematically denying access to GMO materials for the reproduction of studies by independent scientists, the industry undermines its own credibility.

On a more practical level, many examples show that even in disputed cases, EFSA does not request additional evidence from the applicants. EFSA has repeatedly recommended authorisation of GMOs even if evidence pointed towards increased risks for the immune system, or unintentional changes and increased concentrations of toxic substances were detected in the plants.

The recommendation by EFSA to hold on to buffer distances of 20 to 30 metres only between GM-maize fields and protected nature sites is only the latest example of science at the service of industry. This comes after a study by Hofmann et al showed that maize pollen can travel several kilometres, thereby endangering protected butterflies and other insects, and that therefore buffer zones should be in the 'kilometre range'.

TTIP adds flames to the fire

Against this backdrop, TTIP provides a new avenue of assault for lobbyists intent on unravelling even the regulations that currently do apply. Many analysts pointed out that the scenario of TTIP weakening Europe's rules over GMOs is not unrealistic. The EU's authorisation process for GMOs is a long-time target for US exporters who claim these rules hamper their sales and profits. An American NGO stated in the report  "Biotech Ambassadors":

‘In the past decade, the United States has aggressively pursued foreign policies in food and agriculture that benefit the largest seed companies. The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.’

At the same time Public Citizen dubbed TTIP as “Monsanto’s Plan B":

'U.S. and EU negotiators are now proposing TTIP rules that could undermine both precautionary principle-based approvals for GMO seeds and cultivation and GMO labelling. U.S. negotiators have stated that TTIP should “seek to eliminate or reduce non-tariff barriers…such as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) restrictions that are not based on science.'

Translated from trade jargon, this means that instead of agribusinesses being required to prove that a GMO seed does not pose a threat before it can be sold, limits on GMO seeds or cultivation would only be permitted under TTIP rules if governments can show that there is scientific evidence of a specific threat to human, animal or plant life. Not only would this endanger the EU GMO approval process but it would directly undermine the current rights of EU Member States to ban the cultivation of GMOs.

It is worrying to see that the precautionary principle, which lies at the base of EU policy on GMOs, has not been included in the TTIP negotiation mandate. Trading away this important principle, which allows legislators to keep GMOs off the market to prevent serious or irreversible environmental damage, is an unacceptable concession to US-based companies.

Instead of strengthening the precautionary principle and improving the risk assessment, the steps undertaken to date by European Commission under pressure from the TTIP talks would create significant loopholes.

For TTIP, look at CETA

Recently leaked information showed that the European Commission asked EFSA to explore ways to bypass food safety checks in the case of GMO-contaminated imports – which activists claim points to the pressure to water-down GMO regulations as part of the EU-US negotiations. In this appalling letter, EFSA thanks the European Commission for the remarkable task it had been assigned: to consider which parts of risk assessment could be dropped when importing genetically contaminated food and feed. But this so called “low-level presence” of unauthorized GMOs means giving up control over what we eat and letting the governments and food safety authorities of other countries decide about which GMOs they deem safe for Europeans to eat.

Canada will be more than happy to decide for us. The push by the EU-Commission to come to terms with low-level presence of unauthorised GMOs relates directly to the concluded, but not yet ratified CETA trade agreement between Canada and the EU. In this text, the EU and Canada agreed that they would “cooperate internationally on issues related to biotechnology such as low-level presence of genetically modified organisms”.

Currently the EU does not allow any presence (contamination), low or otherwise, of non-authorised (illegal) GMOs in foodstuffs and seeds, also called the zero-tolerance policy. This issue is a long-standing thorn in the side of the major GM-exporting countries not least the US. Under CETA EU and Canada will also cooperate “to minimise adverse trade impacts of regulatory practices related to biotechnology products”.

The Canadian government cheered and agribusiness applauded: “We look forward to the EU adopting more timely and science-based policies related to the approval of biotech traits as well as addressing issues related to establishing low-level presence policies.”

As Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)commented:

"For one, a trade agreement similar to TTIP, the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), explicitly mentions lifting “trade barriers” for biotech crops. And where CETA goes, TTIP is very likely to follow. Indeed, it would be surprising if this were not the case, given that the EU's GMO rules are a burning issue for the US."

Re-launching the debate

Beyond CETA, the biotech lobby is pushing for authorisation of organisms that have been modified using new techniques that currently do not fall under EU legislation on GMOs. The EU Commission is planning to decide on these new techniques, also called “synthetic biology”, alone. The European Parliament is not consulted and the EU Commission even let Member States know that their questions would be heard, but this would not change the Commission’s opinion.

Given the wide implications of these new biotechnologies, the EU Commission’s undemocratic attitude is completely unacceptable. Synthetic biology techniques such as Crispr-Cas9 allow for far-reaching manipulations in the genome of plants, animals and humans. When applied to animals and plants, these technologies lead to many of the same environmental and health risks as traditional genetic engineering. 

And of course socio-economic impacts, as the synthetic organisms are also to be patented. Due to the extensive manipulation power that synthetic biology confers upon scientists, new ethical questions arise. For example, in 2012, a well-known proponent of synthetic biology, George Church, published a book suggesting that these technologies could be used to ‘start with a stem cell genome from a human adult and gradually reverse-engineer it into the Neanderthal genome or a reasonable close equivalent’. But should we resurrect woolly mammoths and Neanderthals only because we might have the power to do so? From where does the Commission draw its confidence that questions of such severity can be solved by a simple legal analysis of the existing legal framework, rather than sound democratic debate? 

With all of these elements, it is clear who has the ear of the Commission when it comes to regulating GMOs in Europe. Whether through our trade agreements or through other means, the agri-biotech industry is playing the long game, and is determined to reach their end goals.

It is a matter of urgency that citizens in Europe re-launch the debate on how to deal with risks and uncertainties of GMOs in a responsible manner. A serious dialogue about the scientific input from the Member States is necessary, and we need to expose the role of the biotech lobby that represents the interests of powerful companies like Monsanto, not people. We need to keep pesticide-resistant plants off the fields and ensure strict and independent risk assessment for plants that were produced using old and new biotechnological methods. Labelling of meat, eggs and milk that were produced using GMO feed is needed so citizens can make informed choices.

We are concerned to see that the European Commission is taking a different route that cynically proposes getting rid of the internal market (so-called “opt-out”) rather than trying to find a real solution to dealing with these risky technologies. At the same time, they seem happy to fritter away EU rules around GMOs in order to facilitate dodgy deals like CETA and TTIP for agri-industry. Safeguarding the future of sustainable agriculture in Europe has never been more pressing. 

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Louis De Bruyn

I agree!

Frans Geys

This stuff is really beyond comprehension... Aldous Huxley couldn't have imagined this. The challenge will be to make people aware of what is happening...

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