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In this report, NI investigates the global deregulation of gene editing and the strategies of the agribusiness industry behind this new generation of GMOs. All over the world this new generation of GMOs are being deregulated with no labeling, no traceability and no corporate accountability if it all goes wrong.
For the last few years, agribusiness and biotech giants have been quietly making changes to GMO regulation around the world. New gene-edited technologies, denominated under an alphabet of new acronyms, from NBTs (New Breeding Techniques), NGTs (New Genomic Techniques), TEAs (Techniques of Assisted Evolution), have been silently dovetailing into different countries’ existing agricultural legislation to by-pass any existing regulations and safety checks set in place for GMOs. Countries such as Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, India, Australia, the United States, Canada, Japan and others now allow gene edited crops to be commercialized with no environmental or consumption safety testing, no labeling, little to no traceability, and no need for public disclosure of gene edited organisms. Effectively leaving farmers, and citizens completely in the dark as to what is now in their food.
On July 5, 2023, the European Commission released a proposal to exclude a large part of the new GMOs, or organisms genetically modified through new genetic editing techniques, from existing GMO regulations that require traceability, labeling, and risk assessment for genetic engineering products. The new regulation considers plant products deriving from genetic editing, of “category 1″, or equivalent to those that “could have been achieved with classic techniques like seed selection and crossbreeding”.
The logic used around the world to justify the deregulation of what is nothing but a new generation of GMOs is based on statements coming from the influential biotechnology sector. According to them, these products obtained through genetic editing (including seeds, plants, microorganisms, and animals), are to be considered harmless as gene editing would allow them to mimic nature’s natural mechanisms of genetic evolution and reproduction, now only faster. According to the large agrotech companies operating in the sector, since these techniques do not involve the insertion of foreign DNA through transgenesis, they cannot be considered equivalent to the first generation of GMOs and can therefore be regulated like conventional crops, microorganisms, and animals.
But upon closer inspection, the deregulation of gene editing around the world has opened the door for the ushering in of a new “bioeconomy”, or a new method of economic production based on the manipulation of genetic information of microbes, plants and animals to “program biology” to be more economically productive. What is really at stake here is the next level of corporate takeover of not just our food system, but all living systems. In this new “bioeconomy”, the goal of bio and agritech companies is for gene editing and biological engineering to become the way that all natural material is either produced, or processed, and marketed all under patent exclusivity. From crop production, animal production, biofuel processing, food production and others, no part of the food system will be left untouched. Organic and GMO-free labeling would disappear in favor of ‘healthy’ or ‘sustainable’ labels, regardless of the process used to create the product. For these companies, man will now be in charge of “directing evolution”, and all nature will now be made to work for the perpetuation of corporate profit.
The European Union, along with a few other countries, until recently, stood as the last bastions against the imposition of these new technologies.
So what are the key issues:
- So -called gene technologies are nothing more than second generation GMO’s. All over the world, the legislation (or lack thereof) of the gene editing process itself and gene edited organisms is essentially the same. With equivalence being drawn between gene-edited organisms and their conventional counterparts on the basis of final product, they are all exempt from any national GMO regulation. Public disclosure of gene edited organisms is not necessary and is only done on a voluntary basis, with little to no traceability, and no labeling, even in countries where GMOs labeling is required. This mass deregulation also means that the goal is to replace all conventional breeding practices with gene editing for both plant crops and animals. This is due to its increased patent, and therefore profit potential, and due the ability to no longer have to be subject to regulation, field trials and government safety checks.
- Policy makers and corporations are using terms like “science-driven policy”, and “scientifically-based technical decision making”, which attempts to give a scientific and moral high ground to highly risky technologies, by elevating these technologies above nature, ecosystem functions and the purview of farmer’s contributions. Scientific determinism inspires agriculture innovation based on reductionist observations made in a lab. Meaning that limited and controlled lab-based data is chosen as evidence of success and innovation that are then proposed as solutions to global threats such as climate change, biodiversity loss and deteriorating health. Establishing all knowledge except the industry-funded scientific knowledge as critical for the promotion of sustainable agriculture enables the industry to control the narrative of the “right and appropriate” solution.
- With the take-off of the concept of “sustainable diets”, and the deregulation of labeling gene edited products, lobby groups have started to move to change overall regulations on labeling GMOs to instead outline what is ‘healthy’ or ‘sustainable’. In the wake of several countries now having legislation to label the presence of GMO ingredients in foods, interest groups are seeking ways to by-pass or change these labels to better market their biotech products. Marking part of corporate groups’ move to eliminate the consideration of the processes of production in food and agricultural regulation.
- Lack of traceability of gene edited organisms, the roping off of genetic material, puts into direct threat the survival of organic and agroecological agriculture, along with traditional and native agrodiversity. In other words, this lack of transparency and regulation appears to absolve manufacturers of any responsibility. This represents a further attack on food sovereignty, understood as the fundamental right of peoples to healthy and safe food produced by ecological methods and to adequate information on the origin and production methods of food.
- Cross contamination could be potentially unknown, any genetic mayhem, or destruction that could happen due to an altered organism could quickly pass on to a wild or conventional counterpart. Leading to a domino effect of possible consequences. Microbes, for example, spread the fastest around the globe, especially if they are tied to human activity. If gene editing goes wrong in a microorganism it would be difficult to control global spread and potential harm.
- The advent of these new technologies are allowing companies to widen patentable material, including individual genetic sequences, different gene editing methods, interventions, technologies and technological improvements, methods of recreating genetic material and storage, and the intervened organism and its subsequent generations or derivatives, meaning the individual seed, plant, animal or microbe. This means the possibility to patent every step of this envisioned new paradigm for plant and animal breeding, along with the roping off of once publicly held genetic information necessary for small and medium scale plant breeders. Essentially guaranteeing complete control of the seed and agricultural market, which is already heavily monopolized. In sum, gene editing technology has now allowed for the opening up of a new level of natural resource exploitation of previously inaccessible biological material.
- Debunking the role of gene technology in the promotion of sustainable food systems. The discourses that are being used to execute this deregulation are the same narratives that were used in the 1990s for the imposition of the first generation of GMOs. It is a series of false promises: the promise of increased climate sustainability, increased yield for greater food security, pest resistance, greater health and so on, that have all, with time, been proven completely false.
- Gene editing is the gateway to the new ‘Bioeconomy’. The global deregulation of gene editing, coupled with securing and closing off access to such a vast amount of genetic material through patents, licensing agreements and royalties, has now opened the door for the development of an entirely new economic sector, deemed by the US and Silicon Valley advocates as the “bioeconomy”. The bioeconomy is the convergence of life sciences, biology, computation and information sciences, engineering and biotechnology. In this new “bioeconomy,” the goal of biotech and agritech companies is to make gene editing and biological engineering the main tool for producing and processing all natural material, reducing agribusiness production to an artificial system of exclusive patents and licensing.
- It directly relies on the manipulation of nature’s genetics to “program” biology to become more economically productive. This includes the expansion of synthetic biology, or the genetic engineering or editing of microbes to produce new chemical compounds, the gene editing of animals, or animal products like lab-made meat, and expansion into sectors like energy, health, and industrial chemicals. Biotech enthusiasts see this new economic sector as the panacea that could solve all our ecological, climate and economic crises. Thanks to gene editing technology they can now mobilize a previously inaccessible part of nature to produce economic output on their behalf.
As has been revealed by numerous independent scientists, civil society reports and studies, corporate claims to the safety, effectiveness, conventional equivalence, as well as their necessity for sustainable development, are just elaborate ploys that are easily debunked. Considering the devastating consequences already caused by the industrial food system, pushed through the same false promises of food security, sustainability, and climate adaptation, there is little reason to believe this new era of gene editing organisms will be any different. Lack of traceability, and independent testing leaves us completely uninformed as to what gene edited organisms are already released, how much they’ve spread, and what ecological, or health damage they may cause, directly violating citizen, farmer and nature’s rights. This lack of transparency, along with the full green-light to release these modified organisms into the environment erases all liability for the creation of these organisms.
The way we are currently producing food, through industrial, chemical driven agriculture is the very thing that has created climate chaos, biodiversity extinction, mass pollution, farmer suicides, and global ill-health. Corporations are looking for ways to have us constantly question or forget this fact. But the way we produce our food is perhaps even more important than the final products, as food systems are deeply intertwined with natural systems, as well as with culture and local economies. The attempt to erase the ways in which food is produced, is a play to erase the consequences of this industrial paradigm. This is exactly the aim with the deregulation of this next generation of GMOs. In order to maintain business as usual and not lose profit by allowing the real solutions to come to the forefront, a new iteration of the same failed technologies are being pushed globally.
New gene editing technologies continue to shift attention away from these real alternatives that can drive ecological regeneration. Now it is more important than ever to protect our food and seed sovereignty. To demand that our democratic governments actually listen to the will of the people, and protect farmers and citizens from the risks of these new technologies, as well as hold corporations responsible for the destruction they’ve caused. The real solutions lie in the creation of ecologically integrated systems based on biodiversity, care and a science that understands and respects the interconnections between life and nature.
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New GMOs must not be deregulated – Campaign