Just days before the European Council formally adopted its new rules allowing Member States to decide whether to ban or allow “GMO” cultivation on their territories, the UK’s Science and Technology Committee (SCT) released a scathing report on the state of the EU GMO regulatory regime. 

Broadening the debate and ending the deadlock

The observations and recommendations of the SCT and the changes introduced to the EU GMO legislation may have profound impacts on a variety of players in the European agriculture, agri-tech and wider biotech sectors, as well as the food and drink industry and those involved with the climate change/sustainability agenda. The SCT’s report also cites evidence supporting a need to reframe the debate to a much broader discussion of advanced genetic technologies for example in animal and plant health, and also food production and security. 

The calibre and strength of the report suggests that technological and scientific developments are beginning to pull us out of the stagnancy of a debate that has lasted decades, or at least take us to a point where mature reflection has entered into the wider advanced crop engineering debate. We are intending to produce a series of articles on these exciting, yet controversial, developments. The SCT’s report is a good starting point (see below). 

Background to the EU GMO regime amendments and the SCT's Report

The changes to the GMO regulatory regime introduced by the European Council on 2 March 2015 have been criticised by many as not going far enough to unblock the current backlog in applications for GMO cultivation (see our previous Law-Now article on the subject here). This “uneasy compromise” on GMOs had been seen at least as a step in the right direction. However, the report by the SCT on the current regulatory regime, and its underlying evidence, is clear in its opinion that such small and heavily-negotiated changes to an inherently “flawed” system, will not make meaningful progress to reverse the flow of research activity out of Europe or reduce the perceived risks to the future of European agriculture. The SCT boldly concludes that “substantial regulatory reform is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity”. 

The tone and conclusions of the report will most probably ruffle some regulatory feathers, but the bigger question is whether it demonstrates that the debate around GMOs has reached a tipping point; one which may see the ousting of outdated terms and misuse of the precautionary principle, and perhaps an end to what had become a stagnated and highly political debate. 

The SCT’s report and Inquiry

The SCT’s report is a result of a year-long inquiry into the evidence and the opinions of prominent academics, industry representatives, policy makers, NGOs and lobbyists (amongst others). 60 written submissions were received by the SCT and oral evidence was heard from 30 witnesses on issues such as: (i) whether the EU and UK GMO regulations are fit for purpose; (ii) how these regulations have affected the UK’s international competitiveness; and (iii) the EU’s application of the precautionary principle. 

Findings

In its report the SCT is highly critical of the “incapable…or unwilling” European Commission to take account (in risk management decisions) of the potential benefits of genetically engineered products and, conversely, the potential risks of failing to adopt them. 

At the same time, the SCT observed that the “imprecise and problematic” terminology of the current GMO regime no-longer reflects the scientific and technological realities of advanced crop science technologies. Rather than comprehensively protecting from the perceived adverse effects of such technologies, evidence suggests that the current terminology means numerous products with equivalent potential risk to GMOs, are and will remain unregulated. 

Overhaul

The SCT says that the current GMO regime is not fit for purpose and advocates a substantive overhaul in order to (i) reflect scientific realities; (ii) observe the principle of subsidiary; and (iii) encourage innovation and foster sustainable agriculture in the EU. 

Drop “GMO”

The SCT also makes numerous recommendations aimed directly at the UK government, the EU Commission, the media and NGOs, including a call for all parties to move away from framing the debate in outdated and unhelpful terminology, such as “GMOs” or “GM”. The SCT highlights in particular the growing evidence suggesting debate in terms of trait, rather than product or process, would be a hugely progressive step. 

Ultimately, the SCT says that reframing the debate and law will allow the repatriation of national decision-making and create meaningful conversation about what the public wants from its food and agriculture. The tone of the report and the underlying evidence clearly suggests that the latest amendments to the EU GMO legislation will not achieve this. 

The text of the adopted amendment to (which will be adopted 20 days following its publication in the Official Journal) is available here
 
The SCT’s report is available here.