GM Free Cymru

The EASAC Report -- a critique from Testbiotech

Date Added to website 16th March 2014

Extract from: Free trade for 'high-risk biotech'? Future of genetically engineered organisms, new synthetic genome technologies and the planned free trade agreement TTIP – a critical assessment by Dr Christoph Then Dec 2013 Published by Testbiotech

The EASAC report ("Planting the Future")

At the same time as the negotiations for a new free trade agreement began in June 2013, a report was published arguing the EU standards for risk assessment should be substantially lowered. Under the auspices of the European Academy Scientific Advisory Panels (EASAC, 2013), well-known proponents of agro-biotech such as Joachim Schiemann und Jörg Romeis presented their own point of view. The bias of the EASAC report is shown for example in the prioritisation of new genetically engineered plants with herbicide resistance:

"Priorities include introducing insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance into wheat, barley, oil seed rape, soybean, potato, vegetable brassicas and other horticultural crops."

The most troubling message in the EASAC report is that genetic engineering in plants should no longer be perceived as a risky technology and current regulations should be overhauled to that effect. The precautionary principle, in particular should no longer be the basis for risk analysis in the EU in its present form and current practice. EASAC experts argue that enough experience with genetically engineered plants has been gathered to agree that there would be no specific risks associated with their use in agriculture and food production:

"Even if stringent application of the precautionary principle had been justifiable in the early days of GM crop research and development when there were more uncertainties about impact, it is difficult to defend the merits of retaining a rigid, cautious, technology-specific regulation today when there is much less uncertainty."

The precautionary principle as applied in the EU presupposes that market authorisation can be refused if there are substantial uncertainties regarding safety. This means that uncertainties and gaps in knowledge are very relevant for risk assessment32 . This approach has evolved over more than a decade of discussions in the EU and it is a basic provision of EU regulations such as 178/2002 and Directive 2001/18. Contrary to existing EU regulations, the EASAC experts propose to reject market authorisations only in cases where there is already evidence of adverse effects. This would mean that measures might be taken too late. Further they are of the opinion that it would not be necessary to subject all genetically engineered organisms to risk assessment, but only specific products which are already known to have potential hazards. The effect would be a similar lack of regulatory oversight as shown by Ledford (2013). Further the authors claim evidence of benefits for agriculture:

"(...) in common with other sectors, the aim should be to regulate the trait and/or the product but not the technology in agriculture. The regulatory framework should be evidence-based. There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding. There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy. Action is needed to unify and harmonise the regulatory and innovation-enabling roles of the EU policymaking institutions and to ensure that regulation of the outputs of all the crop genetic improvement technologies has a firm foundation in sound science."

However, it should be kept in mind that the so called "compelling evidence" of the benefits of the technology is just as controversial as the safety of the products (see Then 2013). If the opinion of EASAC´s experts is adopted in new regulations this would mean:

›› replacing the precautionary principle with a system that will only accept evidence of adverse effects as a trigger for regulatory measures;

›› abolishing regulations for centralised registration and risk assessment covering all genetically engineered organisms;

›› abolishing comprehensive and mandatory labelling of genetically engineered organisms and products thereof and leading to less transparency and less choice for farmers and consumers.

EASAC experts also want to exclude new technologies in the context of synthetic genome technologies from any regulation:

" There is need for urgent action to agree the status and regulation of New Breeding Techniques and, in particular, to confirm which products do not fall within the scope of legislation on genetically modified organisms."

At the same time the EASAC experts are aware that new technologies will be available which will enable radical alterations in the genome:

"Further ahead, scientific discovery worldwide may enable much more radical options for GM crops, involving highly polygenic traits (…)."

It seems highly contradictory to argue for lowering standards of risk assessment and excluding new technologies from regulation while at the same time new methods are being created that will generate many new uncertainties and risks.

Ref: EASAC (2013) Planting the future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture.European Academies Science Advisory Council, EASAC Policy Report 21.