Companies appear to be deliberately investing in techniques designed to circumvent the EU's GMO regulations. These investments, and the many related patent applications, now demand a financial return.
The European Commission is close to issuing a crucial decision on whether or not a new generation of genetic engineering techniques will be covered by EU GMO legislation.
If it turns out that one or more techniques are excluded from regulation, this means that the resulting GM products will go untested, unmonitored, and unlabelled - the mission of a well-rehearsed, below-the-radar industry lobby offensive.
A report by Corporate Europe Observatory published today, based on numerous documents released under freedom of information requests, illuminates how industry has attempted to bend the rules to let new GMOs slide through.
Industry has resurrected the pitch it used 20 years ago with GM 1.0 to help usher in the era of 'GM 2.0'. This pitch predictably cites key challenges we face today, notably "rapid world population growth, climate change, and increasing scarcity of resources such as soil and water."
New GM techniques, industry claims yet again, will come to the rescue by massively improving the precision and speed of the plant breeding process. Important objectives allegedly include pest resistance, drought tolerance ...
Yet the very first new GM crop in the pipeline, developed by the Canadian company Cibus, is another herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops are waging social and environmental havoc in the countries where they are mass produced. Furthermore, the claims about the benefits of GMOs have been refuted time and again.
Never mind the law - the pressure is on
As Janet Cotter and Ricarda Steinbrecher recently argued in The Ecologist, products from so-called 'gene editing' technologies clearly fall within the definition of a GMO in both European and international law, and present real risks to the environment and human health.
Environmental and farming groups have united to demand that products obtained through these new GM techniques will be regulated, and that GM rules are ultimately strengthened.
And the pressure is on. Industry has set up a EU-level lobbying vehicle with the goal of having as many of the new GM techniques as possible excluded from EU regulations. This 'New Breeding Techniques (NBT) Platform' is run by Schuttelaar & Partners, a Dutch lobby and PR firm with a shady reputation for pro-GM lobbying.
This is the crew that was responsible for coaching Monsanto in the smooth introduction of the first Roundup Ready (herbicide-tolerant) crops on the European market in 1996. The firm's lobby campaign relied on unfounded claims about environmental benefits such as reduced pesticide use.
The big biotech corporations like Bayer, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences have filed dozens of patent applications on new GM techniques. These techniques allow developers to make one or more changes to an existing variety with a strong market position - like the Gala apple - but then charge higher fees to growers due to the patents.
Lobbyists plan - influence key deicsion makers
In a meeting with EU decision makers in 2012, the NBT Platform stressed the fact that "the EU occupies the second place in the world for patent applications, with the UK and the Netherlands contributing most significantly."
Companies appear to be deliberately investing in techniques designed to circumvent the EU's GMO regulations. An NBT Platform lobby document sent to EU decision makers in 2013 states that they were developed "as a response to the de facto moratorium on GMOs that currently exists in Europe." These investments, and the many related patent applications, now demand a financial return.
Although the NBT Platform has been active since 2011, it only recently entered cyberspace. Its official aim is to liberate as many new GM techniques as possible from the EU's GMO law. This it hopes to achieve with new, industry-friendly interpretations of the EU GMO Directive (2001/18), which would conveniently result in all new techniques under discussion escaping GM regulation.
Its website visualises a three-stage lobby campaign of the most remarkable banality (see image, above right) culminating in 'Agreement'. But the most important element by far must be in Phase Three, still under way: "influencing key decision makers". That's what lobbyists do best - out of public reach and behind closed doors
The industry has also set a number of lobbying tactics into action in its campaign for deregulation. These include:
1. Rebrand your product, rebrand yourself
Rebranding new genetic engineering as 'new breeding techniques' (NBTs) was industry's first step in making this new generation of GM appear friendly and kindred to classical plant breeding.
Other labels in the new lexicon - such as 'gene editing' and 'high precision breeding' - were adopted to suggest absolute technological control of the genetic engineering process. However, precision in changing an organism's genetic makeup does not equate safety if the impacts are not fully understood.
Furthermore, the NBT Platform does not let an opportunity go by to stress that it represents the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and (public) research institutes. However, only three companies in the Platform actually qualify as SMEs, and the research institutes that are represented, like Rothamsted Research, have strong financial ties with industry.
Moreover, these SMEs and research institutes often play the role of technology suppliers for big multinationals. Some multinationals, like Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences, are not on the membership list yet actively participate Platform lobby meetings.
2. Stay below the radar
Although the NBT Platform was launched in 2011, it was all but invisible until recently. It only surfaced in the EU Transparency Register in April 2015, and finally launched a dedicated website just a few months later.
Little information is available on the register: no membership list, no funding data, and no link to Schuttelaar & Partners that runs the show. The NBT Platform website does provide a list of members, but it is questionable how complete it is. (See previous point).
3. Legal creativity
The NBT Platform has developed a carefully constructed a 'legal questionnaire' that should guide decision makers to the desired outcome: that all new GM techniques now in question are exempt from regulation and by extension from labelling.
For instance the questionnaire ensures that GMOs that did not get 'foreign' DNA from unrelated species inserted (such as products from gene editing or cisgenesis) would no longer get regulated. However, making changes to the genetic make up of an organism using GM techniques needs to be regulated to discover any unintended and unexpected effects, and its potential impact on the environment.
4. Jobs and TTIP
The lobby for the new GM has threatened decision makers that the European plant breeding sector would lose much of its competitiveness and innovativeness if new GM were to be regulated.
These are magical words in Brussels, and the TTIP negotiations have been a welcome additional source of political pressure to this end. Correspondence has shown that biotech and seed industry groups have identified GM 2.0 as a trade concern to both US and EU officials, claiming that the new techniques should go unregulated "as they don't pose any safety concerns."
5. Doing an end-run on EU GM regulations
Individual companies have been pressing various European governments to clarify the legal status of the new GM techniques, and at the same time announcing plans to field trial them in those countries.
Canadian company Cibus, for example, followed this strategy in Germany for a new GM product developed with the ODM technique that had already been commercialised in the US.
The German government succumbed to the pressure, but thanks to a court case by environmental and sustainable farming organisations the planned field trials could not go ahead in 2015.
Helping hands at the national level
Of course, a little help from your friends is always welcome, and certain governments have joined industry's side, actively advocating the deregulation of new GM techniques at the EU level.
The British, German and Irish governments have been particularly helpful in peddling industry's flawed legal argumentation. They communicated their viewpoints to the Commission on two occasions last year, arguing that certain new GM techniques should go unregulated.
The Dutch Government has been at the forefront of the push for Brussels to deregulate a technique called cisgenesis (where an organism is engineered using genes from the same species or a crossable one). €10 million were given to Wageningen University to develop a cisgenic 'national GM potato' - even though there is virtually no commercial interest from Dutch firms to commercialise the product.
Wageningen University has consequently played an active role both in The Hague and in Brussels to push for the deregulation of cisgenesis.
Grand finale or ongoing battle?
All invested parties are now awaiting the Commission's decision, to be presented in March 2016. As Brussels itself realises, the Commission release is likely to be just the beginning - and not the resolution - of this contentious issue.
In all likelihood, it will be the European Court of Justice that ultimately determines the regulatory fate of new GM techniques. The court case around Cibus' herbicide-tolerant ODM oilseed rape in Germany will therefore be of great importance.
In the meantime, neither the biotech industry nor its financiers are likely to secure the certainty they have been striving for. Other actors may come into play, such as food distributors demanding direct liability for new GM products from those who put them on the market.
In addition, national parliaments could still demand labelling for new GM products, as has happened in the Netherlands.
With TTIP negotiations proceeding apace, environmental and sustainable farming groups must stay actively protect our hard-won - albeit imperfect - GM laws.
The report: 'Biotech lobby's push for new GMOs to escape regulation'.
- 'Canadian company railroads EU decision making on new GM'.
- 'Of apples and potatoes: the Dutch lobby for the deregulation of cisgenesis'.
Nina Holland is researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, an organisation that aims to expose and challenge the corporate power exerted by transnational corporations over EU decision making in Brussels. She focuses on the agribusiness lobby, including the biotech and pesticide industries.
Further reading: 'Genetic Engineering in plants and the "New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)' by Ricarda Steinbrecher. December 2015.