It's not just a matter for regulators. Retailers and consumers also need to know that a new generation of GM crops - containing residues from blanket spraying with multiple herbicides - could be heading for the EU.
The European Commission's Standing Committee on Plants, Animals and Food met this week to consider three applications for import into the EU of genetically engineered soybeans, for use in both human food and animal feeds.
The three varieties are all resistant to the herbicide glyphosate - but each with an extra new twist of its own that adds to the danger they present.
What did the Standing Committee decide? We don't know, and we are unlikely to find out for some months. Its proceedings are conducted in secret. But the results of its deliberations could be crucial for human and animal health across the EU.
Of course we're already familiar with glyphosate-resistant GMO crops like soya and maize. Often known as 'Roundup Ready' after Monsanto's proprietary glyphosate brand, they are widely grown in North and South America, and are imported into Europe in large quantities for use in animal feed.
These 'Roundup Ready' GM crops allow farmers to blanket-spray their fields with glyphosate herbicides right through the growing season - killing weeds but allowing the crop to survive.
According to industry figures, about 85% of the GM crops planted today, by area, are tolerant to glyphosate. The main exception is insect resistant cotton (Bt cotton) planted mainly in the US, India and China.
But there's a growing problem that's undermining the efficacy of Roundup Ready crops: the emergence of glyphosate-resistant 'superweeds', which have evolved under the constant spraying of fields with the herbicide. It's already causing massive problems for farmers in the US - where about half of all farmland is thought to be affected - as well as in Brazil and Argentina.
The industry response to superweeds is to develop new 'stacked' GM crops that are tolerant to even more controversial herbicides. These include 2,4-D, dicamba and isoxaflutole - ignoring the obvious concern that harm to wildlife habitats will be exacerbated and resistance to multiple herbicides will develop in the future.
And yes, these are the 'next generation' GM crops awaiting approval for import to the European Union, which is already heavily dependent on imported RoundUp Ready soya for use in animal feed. They include:
- Bayer soybeans resistant to glyphosate and isoxaflutole;
- Monsanto soybeans resistant to both glyphosate and dicamba;
- and Monsanto soybeans with two separate mechanisms of resistance to glyphosate, allowing them to be sprayed with even higher doses of the herbicide.
From the Standing Committee these applications will go to the Appeals Committee, and then on to the Commission itself.
So what's the problem? Glyphosate, and more ...
The first problem is glyphosate itself, the world's top selling herbicide. Ecologist readers will already be aware of its health risks, and that the World Health Organisation's cancer agency has classified the herbicide as probably carcinogenic to humans.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)'s scientific opinion, which takes the opposite view of IARC and recommends renewal of the licence to use glyphosate across the EU, has already generated considerable controversy.
However, EFSA's opinion on glyphosate is also important for what it does admit: that that there are not enough data available on the application of glyphosate to genetically modified (GM) plants resistant to the herbicide to reach conclusions on safety. As EFSA's opinion states: "In the framework of the renewal, representative uses were proposed for conventional crops only and residue trials on glyphosate tolerant GM crops were not provided."
But that's not all. The active ingredient glyphosate is not used alone in commercial weedkillers, such as Monsanto's Roundup. Instead it's combined with 'co-formulants' like surfactants, that make it stickier, more easily absorbed into the plant through its leaves, and less liable to be washed off by rain.
Some of these additives have repeatedly been shown to significantly increase toxicity. Thus the EFSA opinion states that more investigations are needed in regard to the carcinogenicity of the formulations that are applied commercially:
"In particular, it was considered that the genotoxic potential of formulations should be addressed; furthermore EFSA noted that other endpoints should be clarified, such as long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity, reproductive / developmental toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential of formulations".
And EFSA admits that some ingredients in these formulations, such as POE-tallow amine additives, can significantly increase toxicity. For example, the agency writes: "Compared to glyphosate, a higher toxicity of the POE-tallow amine was observed on all endpoints investigated."
EFSA also warns: "The genotoxicity, long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity, reproductive / developmental toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential of POE-tallow amine should be further clarified. There is no information regarding the residues in plants and livestock. Therefore, the available data are insufficient to perform a risk assessment in the area of human and animal health for the co-formulant POE-tallow amine."
This admission is important because EFSA safety tests for GM crops are usually based on applying the active ingredient glyphosate alone - not the commercial formulations.
'Next generation' GM crops: tolerant to yet more herbicides
What does all this mean for the three soybeans currently being assessed for import into Europe? The IARC has already ruled that glyphosate is a 'probable human carcinogen'. And although the EFSA does not agree with that, it does warn that the other ingredients used in glyphosate herbicides present dangers that have not yet been properly characterised.
These new soybean varieties are now going to add to the problem, by containing either isoxaflutole or dicamba (and their co-formulants) in addition to glyphosate. That, or an extra-heavy dose of glyphosate.
And you guessed it ... the EFSA has not assessed the combinatorial - synergistic or additive - effects of these herbicides and their residues together with those of glyphosate and co-formulants. Remarkably, the EFSA GMO panel did not request any feeding trials of whole soybeans of any of the three varieties up for approval.
That's why GeneWatch UK and Testbiotech have called on the European Commission and Member States to refuse to authorise these imports. They present risks to both human and animal health above and beyond those of the crops currently imported into the EU. And regulators have not got the answers to key health and safety questions.
We must all get involved in this fight
But it's not just a matter for regulators and officials. Retailers and consumers also need to know that a new generation of GM crops - containing residues from blanket spraying with multiple herbicides - could be heading for the EU.
And once imported, they may spread widely in the food chain. Most GM crops are used in animal feed - but meat, milk and eggs produced using GM animal feed are not labelled, so consumers have no way to avoid these products unless they buy organic, or shop carefully in selected stores.
GM food products, which must be labelled as containing GM ingredients, are also starting to creep into high street stores: imported soya cooking oil used in takeaways, some American sweets and sauces, and Domino's 'thin and crispy' pizza bases have all recently been identified as containing GM ingredients.
Of course we don't know the decision reached by the Commission's Standing Committee, nor do we know what view the EFSA will take, or what the Commission will ultimately decide. But given the strong observed institutional bias in favour of GMOs, we must prepare for the worst.
So ultimately it may be up to consumers and campaigners - working with the retailers that supply most of our food - to make sure these 'next-generation' GMOs are kept out of our food chain.
Dr Helen Wallace is Director of GeneWatch UK, a not-for-profit group that monitors developments in genetic technologies from a public interest, human rights, environmental protection and animal welfare perspective. GeneWatch believes people should have a voice in whether or how these technologies are used and campaigns for safeguards for people, animals and the environment. We work on all aspects of genetic technologies - from GM crops and foods to genetic testing of humans.
Open Letter: TestBiotech and GeneWatch UK Open Letter to the European Commission.
Report: 'Technical Background on GE Soyabeans'.
Agenda of the meeting of the experts of Member States in Brussels.