On 10th May 2021, the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment invited experts to a hearing on genome editing. One of the four experts invited was Iris Strutzmann, AK Vienna, to represent the interests of consumers.
On 29th April 2021, the European Commission published the long-awaited study on genome editing. The Committee on the Environment of the European Parliament has taken this study as an opportunity to hold a public hearing on this issue.
Representing the Commission, Irene Sacristan Sanchez stated that the current legal situation on genetic engineering originated in the early years of the new millennium and that it – due to the 2018 ECJ ruling – had also to be applied to new Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Hence, the Council asked the EU Commission to carry out a study on GMOs, which include, for example, radiation techniques. Considering advantages and disadvantages, the study concludes in favour of adapting legislation for new GMOs which in a first step should be aimed at plants. However, there should be a comprehensive dialogue before initiating the relevant next steps.
The expert of AK Vienna, Iris Strutzmann, was invited to this hearing. She pointed out that the right to information is key to enable consumers to take conscious purchasing decisions. The right to information for consumers has already been enshrined in EU treaties and EU laws. Traceability and clear labelling of food as GMOs, which have been produced on the basis of such new techniques, is also essential in order to safeguard consumers’ freedom of choice. A consumers´ survey in Austria showed that 86 % of interviewees were in favour of labelling food with new GMOs as genetically modified food.
Hence, a study by the Environment Agency Austria also concludes that the right to information and the labelling of products, which were produced with new genomic techniques, is the best option from the consumers’ point of view. Iris Strutzmann also regards this as being important when it comes to not putting the increased demand for organic and non-genetically modified food and its production at risk. Both organic agriculture and non-genetically modified production reject the new genetic engineering processes in their supply chains. There are also significant concerns regarding the marketing of such a new technology without risk assessment concerning its impact on human health or the environment.
Other invited experts also argued against relaxing the legal requirements for new GMOs. Michael Antoniou, King´s College London, referred to the lack of scientific data regarding the safety of these technologies; for example, radiation could also result in unforeseeable mutations. Margret Engelhard, Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, stressed that plants, which were modified by GMOs, could spread in nature. Therefore, it is not legitimate to speak of benefits if the dangers are not yet clear. In contrast, Martin Qaim, Göttingen University, referred to the benefits of using genetic engineering in agriculture, in particular for the countries of the global south.
The contributions and questions of MEPs were wide-ranging. Whilst Anja Hazekamp (GUE/NGL) emphasised how important labelling for consumers’ freedom of choice is, Herbert Dorfmann (EPP) wanted a debate, which would not only be based on strictly scientific terms; he is in favour of giving the new technology a chance. The questions of the Green´s MEP Martin Häusling, whether they were any examples of plants, which would be more draught-resistant because of the new genomic techniques or to which extent classic genetic engineering had had an impact on pesticide reduction so far, remained unanswered.
As a next step the Commission will launch a Consultation, which is aimed at all stakeholders to obtain more concrete positions on possible new regulations for GMOs.