On December 22, a parliamentary process in favor of GMOs and new breeding techniques (NBTs) has begun at the Italian Chamber’s Agricultural Commission. A process which opens a very risky path, since it could lead to a green light for the cultivation of GMOs in Italy – without any public or scientific debate. Such a decision could prove “irreversible”, and therefore destined to have an overwhelming impact on the Italian agricultural sector with important consequences for both conventional and organic crops. What is happening in Italy today is not an impromptu legislative initiative, but a planned offensive. It is the result of a lobbying process developed over the last decade and has intensified following the ruling of the European Court of Justice that equates NBTs with GMOs.
In Europe, the use, as well as the cultivation and marketing of genetically modified organisms is subject to very strict rules and complex authorization procedures. The industry, in order to gain a foothold in the European market, has therefore decided to focus on NBTs, the new techniques of genetic manipulation. This is the case of CRISPR-CAS9, a particularly simple and inexpensive technique that allows for the modification of DNA without the introduction of external genes, as is the case with older generations of GMOs. Based on this procedural difference, the industry could claim that organisms modified with CRISPR-CAS9, which has been defined by many as a DNA cut-and-sew operation, were comparable to those obtained through conventional breeding and therefore do not require ad hoc regulation.
However, on July 25, 2018, a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union equated GMOs to NBTs, throwing the entire agribusiness sector into panic. The Corporate Europe Observatory denounced how, following the publication of the Court of Justice’s judgment, the European Union has been subject to incessant lobbying pressure from the United States and other trading partners to allow NBTs to not be absorbed by the GMO legislation. Commenting on the multiple defeats of agribusiness, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, defined the European Court’s ruling as “regressive and untimely”, announcing the willingness of his ministry to “redouble efforts” to convince European partners to change their approach. A new phase that also involves Italy. The meeting between Sonny Perdue and the Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova took place at the end of January 2020 in Rome. NBTs were not missing among the topics of the meeting. This was the Italian Minister’s stance on the subject: “Above all, I consider the importance of the collaboration in research and innovation, with particular regard to innovative techniques of plant genomics. We are also working at European level to make a clear distinction between these techniques and transgenic genetic modification”.
The alert on a new lobbying offensive had already been launched by the Corporate Europe Observatory, in October, when they denounced how the agribusiness lobby, together with pesticides and food industry giants, were trying to prevent the new EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from aligning with the Farm to Fork strategy. Yet, it is precisely within the pages of the European Commission’s strategy document that corporate interests have found the right opening. The goal of reducing the use of fertilizers by 20%, chemical pesticides by 50% and converting 25% of the continental agriculture to organic farming collides with some parallel assessments: “New innovative techniques,” reads the Farm to Fork strategy, “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.” The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) also supported the industry by publishing a favorable opinion on NBTs in October 2020.
The news of a new political offensive by some Member States, including Italy and France, to open the doors to new GMOs seems to be a logical consequence of what has been developing in Europe in recent years.
As remarked by Dr Vandana Shiva, President of Navdanya International: “Gene edited Organisms are GMOs. Science informs us that gene editing is not a precise tool but a clumsy instrument for working with seeds which are complex self-organised living systems. The European Court of Justice has ruled that Gene editing is genetic engineering because it modifies organisms at the genetic level. Therefore, gene editing produces GMOs. Gene editing is not breeding but a short cut to patenting seeds and owing the seed heritage that farmers have evolved.”
Thumbnail image: GM Watch