Advocacy groups for non-GMO and organically produced food in the US, the EU and Australia called on their federal governments and lawmakers in July-August to maintain current genetically modified organisms’ legislation and not to allow self-regulation or include GM/GE techniques within organic legislation. Exports of organic foods and the viability of the organic label could be put at risk and threaten consumer health and safety.
The moves came after the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed plans to scale back regulation of genetically modified plants with engineered traits similar to those that could traditional breeding achieves, that would be exempt from federal regulations, UPI news said.
The move is "in response to advances in genetic engineering," the USDA said in a statement, with the changes detailed in a proposed new rule that would revise the agency's current method for regulating GM plants.
Under the new rule, far fewer genetically engineered plants would need federal approval -- or notification -- to be commercially produced. This move could be a win for developers, especially small to midsize companies that cannot currently afford to delve into genetic engineering because of the high cost of applying for permits.
"Our hope is that this will ease that burden considerably," said Bernice Slutsky, the senior vice president for innovation at the American Seed Council. However, Greg Jaffe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project director said: "Just because none of these plants was harmful in the past doesn't mean they could never be."
Besides the potential safety concerns, Jaffe fears deregulation will make it harder for the public to know if and how the plants they consume have been genetically modified. "One of the things these regulations did besides ensuring safety was ensuring transparency," he said. "If they don't have to go through a regulatory process anymore, people can add, edit or pull out genes, and nobody will know."
The GE plants that will be excluded from federal regulation are mainly plants with a genetic modification that a breeder could have achieved through "traditional" breeding practices. Developers will be allowed to "self-determine" if their GE plant fits this category.
EU organic movement backs existing GMO legislation
One year ago, on 25 July 2018, the European Court of Justice issued a landmark decision clarifying that plants modified using new genetic engineering techniques with no lengthy record of safety are indeed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and must be regulated as such, IFOAM EU, which represents more than 210 member organizations spanning the organic food chain, said in early August.
“The organic food and farming movement reiterates that it is crucial to ensure that risk assessment, traceability and labelling apply to all GMOs and all genetic engineering techniques,” IFOAM EU said.
“If new genetic engineering techniques would be out of the scope of the EU legislation on GMOs, it would lead to the release of genetically modified organisms in the environment and the food chain without assessment, prior authorization and traceability. Such a situation would make it almost impossible for organic farmers and conventional GMO-free farmers to exclude the presence of GMOs in their production process and to live up to the expectations of consumers.
“Any attempt to exclude plants modified with new genetic engineering techniques from the current GMO-legislation would go against the freedom of choice of consumers, farmers and processors not to have GMOs in their food. It would contradict with the European Union’s objectives of protection of the environment and human health. And finally, it would be contrary to the intent of the legislator to create a protective legal framework regarding the genetic modification of living organisms.”
“Implementing the European Court of Justice’s decision means following the precautionary principle and taking consumer and environmental protection seriously,” said Thomas Fertl, IFOAM EU Board Member and sector representative for farming. “This is what the European Commission and Member States’ authorities need to focus on.”
Australia campaigns over deregulation of new GMOs
In Australia, non-GMO advocate Gene Ethics and Organic Industries of Australia called on the public in late July to petition the Labor Opposition and parliamentarians in the Federal Parliament and call for a Senate inquiry over changes to Gene Technology regulations.
"Proposed changes to Australia's federal law threaten to disrupt environments and our food supply. But the parliament can still disallow the regulatory changes until September 12, 2019," Gene Ethics executive director Bob Phelps said. "The big problem is that several destinations in Asia, Europe and New Zealand will continue to regulate GM processes and products. They will not want unregulated and unapproved GM food products. China, Japan and others are risk-averse to such foods and often reject shipments containing such ingredients, which has cost US farmers and industry hundreds of millions."
Sidelining the Gene Technology Regulator before the new GM game even starts and allowing a free for all where industry and science players make their own rules, is reckless, unscientific and contrary to the Gene Technology Act, Mr Phelps added.
Australian organic industry interim peak body, Organic Industries of Australia Limited, said it has grave concerns over the government's plan to deregulate gene-editing methods in Australia from October 8.
"Australian organic exports rely on produce meeting the organic standards as set by importing countries. In China, Europe and other markets, SDN1 and CRISPR – CAS9 technology does not comply with those standards. Under this move, Australian organic product could no longer be certified as organic on those and other premium export markets," said Greg McNamara, chair, Organic Industries of Australia.