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A lobbying wave is hitting Europe to deregulate NBTs. The Crispr files detail the Agribusiness strategy backed, once again, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Italy was the first country on the list to deregulate, although civil society organizations were able to stop the government’s first attempt. But the fight is just beginning with the future of Europe’s agriculture at stake.  

By Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International 

“We are insisting firmly that the legislation should catch up with the technology, to allow this technology to be used, not only to the benefit of Europeans, but also to the benefit of the rest of the world which looks to Europe for its legislative standards”. It is October 2020 and this statement carries the signature of Liam Condon, President of the Scientific Division of Bayer’s agricultural department: Bayer being a German multinational corporation which has recently bought up Monsanto. It refers directly to the regulations concerning a new generation of genetic modification methods, also known as New Breeding Technologies or NBTs. This statement in support of the use of NBTs in agriculture was released a few months after the European Commission’s launch of their ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy and comes from the director of one of the biggest corporations on the international seed and pesticide market.

It is not a coincidental link. The Commission’s strategy outlines important objectives in terms of environmental sustainability, but equally includes new biotechnologies as among the possible tools deemed useful for reaching such objectives. It constitutes a long-awaited cue for the biotech industry. Hence, while the eco-conscious world was busy celebrating Europe’s green turnaround, the industrial lobby got to work towards obtaining the long-sought-after free pass on this new-generation of GMOs.

It is this GM revival whose impacts will be felt in Italy before too long. In November 2020, the Italian government submitted three legislative regulations for consultation by the Chamber and Senate Commissions, which seeks to open the doors to GMOs and NBTs. A move bound to have a profound impact on the Italian agricultural sector. Despite the obvious magnitude of the commercial interests at play, the government has decided to bypass the public and even the political debate stages, through the means afforded by Legislative Decrees.

Crispr-Cas9: industry’s new trump card for opening the European market up to GM? 

To understand the complexity and the urgency of the issue, we need to take a little step back. On July 25th, 2018, an EU Court of Justice ruling equated NBTs to GMOs throwing the entire agribusiness universe into panic. Agribusiness was expecting to be able to circumvent the legislative boundaries on GMOs thanks to these new technologies. The use of genetically modified organisms is indeed subject to very rigorous rules in Europe, and also to complex authorisation procedures for their cultivation and marketing. With regards to the former, the decision to cultivate GM crops is delegated to individual nations. It is thanks to this regulation that Italy has been able to ban all genetically modified, patented seeds from its territory. With regards to marketing, it has been made mandatory for brands to indicate the presence of GMOs, at a threshold of 0.9% or above, in the labels of their products. A requirement which, considering the widespread opposition of public opinion to GMOs, has effectively crippled the business in Europe. It is no accident that the majority of GM products approved for import in the EU currently are used as livestock fodder.

The agribusiness industry’s decision to switch strategy and concentrate on NBTs was taken precisely in order to surpass the stumbling block posed by public scepticism and by independent scientific studies, to clear the entry into the European market. This is the case with Crispr-Cas9, a particularly simple and economic technique which allows the modification of DNA without the introduction of external genes, as would be the case with old-generation GMOs. Through this procedural difference, the industry was able to claim that organisms modified with Crispr-Cas9, which has been described by many parties as a cut-and-paste DNA operation, were comparable to those produced as a result of natural selection and hence did not require an ‘ad hoc’ regulation. Many big businesses had begun the race to patent because of this ‘presumption’. A ‘presumption’ which was subsequently be denied by recent scientific research. In other words, Bayer, BASF, DOW, and the then Monsanto begun to seek intellectual property rights over the new organisms to be put on the market. A near-perfect plan, except for its collision with the European Court of Justice which ruled that NBTs are actually equivalent to GM organisms and therefore must respect the same regulations of experimentation, monitoring and labelling.

But the story could not end there, given the enormous interests at stake. And even the US Minister for Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, is casting his mind to this issue, commenting on this latest setback for agribusiness. He defines the European Court’s announcement as ‘regressive and untimely’, announcing his Ministry’s wish to ‘double our efforts’ to convince European partners to change their tack. The ‚tack‘ to which Perdue refers should obviously consider, not so much the scientific aspects which in turn refer to the European precautionary principle, but rather the commercial aspects. The USA’s frustration is understandable after having had the door of the lucrative European market slammed in its face, for the second time. Equally easy to imagine is how Perdue’s intervention was not intended as an end, rather it was intended to trigger a new phase in the US diplomatic strategy and in the industrial lobby.

A new phase which immediately implicates Italy. The meeting between Sonny Perdue and the Italian Minister for Agriculture, Teresa Bellanova, took place in Rome at the end of January 2020. NBTs were not absent from the meeting’s agenda. “I am thinking, above all,” reads the stance expressed by the Italian Minister, “about research collaboration and innovation, with particular focus on innovative plant genomics. We are also working at the European level to draw a marked distinction between these techniques and transgenic genetic modifications.”

The Lobby is served 

The European Corporate Observatory reports how, following the publication of the Court of Justice’s sentence, the EU has been subject to incessant lobbying pressure from the US and other commercial partners to allow NBTs to escape the GM legislation. This is the context in which Liam Condon, as part of the Bayer ‘Future of Farming’ conference, released his statements defining Crispr technology as an “amazing breakthrough”, that would allow agriculture to be more sustainable. The spokesperson from the German corporation turned up the heat, issuing what sounds like a warning, “We have missed the transgenic [GM] generation in Europe, we cannot miss this generation of technology.” Condon’s latter observations are accurate ones. In the year of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and the launch of the Green Deal, the industry has come to understand that it cannot get complacent. The European Corporate Observatory had already sounded the alert, when, last October, it denounced how the agri-food lobbies, along with the pesticide and food industry giants, were trying to stop the new CAP from aligning with the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy.

It is within the pages of the European Commission’s strategic document that corporate interests find the right opening. The aims of reducing the use of fertilizers by 20%, the use of chemical pesticides by 50%, and of converting 25% of continental agriculture to organic collides with several parallel assessments. “New innovative techniques”, the ‘Farm to Fork’ document reads, “including biotechnology and the development of bio-based products, may play a role in increasing sustainability, provided they are safe for consumers and the environment while bringing benefits for society as a whole. They can also accelerate the process of reducing dependency on pesticides. In response to the request of Member States, the Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain.” To strengthen the industry’s hand, there is also EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) who, in October 2020, published a favourable opinion on NBTs. The opening of a new political offensive on the part of several Member States, including Italy and France, which aims to open the door to new GMOs seems a natural consequence to what has developed in Europe in recent years. It is not, therefore, an impromptu legislative initiative, rather a well thought-out offensive, coming from lobbying processes developed over the last decade. A process intensified following the European Court of Justice’s announcement.

The Crispr-Files are a large set of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests which were submitted to the European Commission and to the Belgian and Dutch governments and published by the Corporate Europe Observatory. They confirm that the big seed and pesticide corporations such as Bayer, BASF, Corteva (DowDupont) and Syngenta (ChemChina) are looking for alternatives to the pesticide market as the European Commission announced their goal of cutting pesticide use by 50% before 2030. The seed business has become the industry’s new primary target: an industry that is in desperate need of excluding the new generation of genetic modification techniques from European GMO regulations. As is stated from the executive summary: “The Corporate Europe Observatory has uncovered various tactics used by the biotech industry to pave the way for such deregulation. Officials from national ministries were hand-picked for joint strategy meetings with lobbyists; a think-tank set up a new taskforce with a large grant from the Gates Foundation to lay the foundations for GM deregulation through use of „climate narratives“; and a lobby platform was built around a sign-on letter which overstated its backing by research institutes”.

The RIE think-tank (Reimagine Europa) states its mission, “to reinforce Europe’s role as a global economic power in the twenty-first century, able to safeguard a prosperous future of peace, freedom and social justice for all its citizens”.

RIE’s Advisory Board is responsible for the selection of the topics for the taskforces. Among these members were MEP Paolo De Castro and former Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner, Carlos Moedas. Both have previously issued public statements favourable to the deregulation of new GM techniques. Also present in the Board is Enrico Letta, new national secretary of the Italian Democratic Party (PD). The think-tank has explained that some members of its Advisory Board requested the launch of a ‘Taskforce on Innovation and Climate’, in 2018. This taskforce alone was awarded an enormous €1.5 million grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). The BMGF website states the taskforce’s objective in no uncertain terms, “to engage with a broad set of European stakeholders on genome editing in the twenty-first century”.

It further specifies that, “Reimagine Europa is funded by leading foundations including: La Caixa Foundation, Fondazione Cariplo, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as project-based funding from the European Commission”.

Is Italy going to be the GM industry’s trailblazer? 

The rest is current affairs, with three legislative decrees which aim to open Italy’s doors wide to GMO’s and NBTs, with civic society organisations prepared to act as a barrier. A true ‘sleight of hand’ according to the organisations European Consumer, ISDE, Navdanya International and GUFI, who highlight the irreversibility of a choice which would constitute a truly Copernican revolution in the sector, with the risk of a steep decline in biodiversity and of the quality of national production. According to the Italian Rural Association and Via Campesina, the Italian government is justifying its legislative proposals with the necessity of adapting to the EU regulation on seed marketing. In reality, however, this requirement does not exist at the moment, while AIAB and Greenpeace underline the superficiality of the proposals which address complex and delicate themes in a confused manner, so much so that one might imagine a low level of knowledge on the part of the author. For the Cambia la Terra Coalition (FerderBio, Legambiente, Lipu, ISDE and WWF), the decrees would put the organic sector in crisis and would represent a hard hit for ‘Made in Italy’ products.

What comes out clearly is that decisions of this sort must be considered carefully, in terms of their importance not only for the agricultural sector but also for the environment and for consumers. The absence of a public debate, in addition to the absence of a parliamentary debate, and the disputable resort to the mechanism of government decrees, leaves more than a few doubts on the transparency of the initiative. The potential backlash on the environment and on the market, where the unique features of Italian agriculture could be threatened by patented and ‘globalised’ seeds constitutes the feared risks regard the upheaval of the entire Italian agricultural framework. Furthermore, it is highly improbable that the model of agriculture proposed by corporations satisfies the objectives of sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and reduction of fertilisers and pesticide use that the very ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy stipulates. Certainly, as history shows, putting a nation’s food sovereignty in jeopardy does not benefit the small and medium-scale producers. Instead, it fills the coffers of those very corporations who wield the patents on new seed varieties and genetic traits. Those organisations who are against the new regulations accordingly invite the government to withdraw them and invite citizens to mobilise to repeat a firm ‘no’ both to the new and the old generation of GMOs.

Truths and lies about new and old GMOs – Testing the industry narrative 

The industrial agriculture lobby is back on the offensive to avoid missing its opportunity with a second generation of GMOs, especially after Europe imposed strict rules on the first generation. Agribusiness’ main objective is to exempt new breeding techniques (NBTs) from previous GMO rules, and thus avoid testing, monitoring and labelling. In short, the best scenario for the industry would be deregulation, which will again presumably rely on their old narratives to convince public opinion.

One of their favourite arguments is to brand anti-GMO positions as anti-scientific and ideological. But unfortunately for the industry, the amount of scientific studies raising doubts over biotechnology applied to agriculture is overwhelming. GMOResearch.org is the first and most comprehensive scientific database, with over 2,000 studies and publications documenting the potential and actual risks, as well as harmful effects of GMOs. The database contains references from all over the world documenting health effects, environmental impacts, impact on non-target organisms, resistance of target organisms, pesticide drift damage, genetic contamination, horizontal gene transfer and other undesirable effects. The database also has references on crop yield, social impact, ethics and economics.

The EU Court of Justice’s ruling equating NBTs with GMOs also seems to find validation in the scientific community. The latest study published on this subject in Science Direct challenges the praised precision of the Crispr-Cas9 technique, highlighting the unpredictability of the results and the possibility that undesirable side effects may be a risk for the end-user. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility has also come out in favour of regulating GMOs and NBTs.

From a scientific point of view, the claim that NBTs are ‘natural’ is also starting to crack. One of the leading arguments of the industry lobby is that gene editing techniques leave no traces, and should be equated with a natural process, thus escaping GMO regulations. But here too, new research contradicts this assumption. Researchers have successfully applied a highly sensitive and highly accurate quantitative test to the first commercialised gene-edited crop: Canola Su (sulfonylurea-tolerant). This is the first open-source detection test for a genetically modified crop.

What about another old narrative: the sustainability argument, which is also peeking out from the pages of Farm to Fork? A recent study by Dr. Allison Wilson of the Bioscience Resource Project in the US assesses the sustainability impacts of herbicide tolerant and Bt pesticidal GM crops, noting that, “the widespread use of BT and HT crops has led to the problematic development of pest resistance, ‘superweeds’, and secondary pests.” In response to these problems, “farmers increased both insecticide and herbicide use.” The study also looks at new and complex GM traits such as biofortification, or NBTs like gene editing, with a focus on the problem of unintended traits (UTs), a very common phenomenon even with regard to the simplest GM traits. Yet, GM technology is frequently acclaimed for its precision, despite reports of unexpected and harmful unintended traits (UTs) in GM crops periodically reported. Indeed, the reassuring narrative about new genetic manipulation techniques seems to be crashing against the wall of undesirable effects. Sustainability in industrial agriculture seems destined to remain a fairy tale. “While in theory it might someday be possible to create a GM crop that meets the broad requirements of sustainable agriculture,” Wilson concludes, “in practice this seems highly unlikely to ever happen.”

The results of Wilson’s studies come as no surprise to geneticist Salvatore Ceccarelli, who had already identified the same problems with Ht crops. “Any protection mechanism against a crop pest, be it genetic or chemical, can be described as unstable or stable and GMOs belong to the category of unstable solutions to the problem of pest protection. That is why, at best, they provide only a temporary fix, which in turn, creates a new problem-a resistant breed of the pest- which requires a different solution (a new GMO). Therefore, the introduction of GMOs in agriculture starts a chain reaction that only benefits the GMO company,” Ceccarelli emphasises.

The only certainty in such a heated debate is that the only beneficiaries of a possible deregulation process will be those corporations who, by patenting new varieties, will profit from these policies. As remarked by Dr. Vandana Shiva, President of Navdanya International, “Gene edited organisms are GMOs. Gene editing is not equivalent to traditional varietal selection, but a shortcut to patenting seeds and owning the seed heritage that farmers have evolved.”

The original article was first published in Italian in Terra Nuova magazine, February 2021

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Translation kindly provided by Kiri Ley

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