By Dr Eva Gelinsky and Dr Angelika Hilbeck – ENSSER
“Nothing has been “banned”. Interpreting laws that simply recognise the novelty and distinctiveness of different kinds of GM breeding processes, the ECJ is merely offering a consistent framework of interpretation within which continuing healthy reasoned argumentation can be more rigorously played out.”
With the judgement of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) dated 25th July 2018 (in case C-528/16), in which i.a. the question was discussed whether new techniques for “directed mutations” are to be regarded as techniques of genetic engineering and are to be regulated accordingly, the dispute around agricultural genetic engineering in Europe goes into the next round. In essence, it is again a question of how the risks arising from the techniques and from the organisms developed with it are to be assessed and how they are to be dealt with. While those who advocate an unregulated application of the techniques and approval of its products, emphasise their precision and safety, and also highlight their potential for “sustainable” agriculture, those in favour of regulation refer to the novelty of the techniques, to the speed with which genetic modifications are now possible, to the increasing indications from research that the techniques could have undesired and likely problematic consequences as well as to the many unresolved issues, which therefore suggest precautions are taken with them.
Many of the pros and cons presented are known from the debate around conventional genetic engineering. However, it is new that the tone, with which in particular the advocates of the new techniques are speaking out, has once again markedly sharpened. Furthermore, it is their highly polarising position that also almost completely dominates the media reporting of the new techniques and of the ECJ judgement. Our article is a reaction to this one-sided and biased reporting, which is rather spin and lacks in journalistic duty of care.
Some of the central and repeated claims from the genetic engineering sphere, which are picked up by the media, are listed below:
- The ECJ judgement is said to be unscientific because it has already been proven that the new genetic engineering techniques are as safe as conventional cultivation methods. A statement in the judgement that is phrased rather carefully and in the conjunctive mode to the effect that the risks linked to the deployment of the techniques could prove to be comparable to the risks occurring with the cultivation and distribution of GMOs by transgenesis (no. 48) is categorically rejected.
- From this unscientific finding it is inferred that the judgement is backward looking and adverse to progress.
- Therefore, it is claimed that the innovation ability of Europe as a centre of research and science is essentially jeopardised, which is why by the same token necessary innovations, such as a more diverse agriculture that manages with fewer pesticides, can also essentially not be developed.
None of these claims can be proven.
The dispute is based on the fact that the object, i.e., the genetically modified organism (usually a plant), is essentially defined differently. The definition is not dependent on which tools of genetic engineering have been applied. Depending on the position held, conflicting requirements concerning regulation are inferred (Hilbeck et al. 2015). While the critics of genetic engineering regulations effectively treat genetically engineered plants as chemicals (sum of parts) and only want to subject individual components to an isolated assessment (reductionistic approach), those in favour of regulations advocate a comprehensive risk evaluation of the whole genetically modified organism, in which interactions between the organism and the environment are also taken into consideration.
Please read the full commentary in the attachment
This text is a translation from a German statement „Einseitige Angriffe und meinungsmachende Berichterstattung zum EuGH Urteil über neue Gentechnikmethoden entlarvt ein anmassendes und unaufgeklärtes Wissenschafts- Demokratie- und Rechtsverständnis“ published on 6 September 2018