Old and New GMOs are subject to authorisation procedures with a food safety and environmental risk assessment before coming on the market. After market authorisation, the EU GMO legislation ensures detectability, traceability and labelling of GMOs. This means transparency and freedom of choice for breeders, farmers, food and feed producers, food retailers and consumers. It also enables post-marketing monitoring and product recalls in case a product placed on the market is subsequently found to be harmful.
Lack of willingness for transparency and little research funding
Those that argue against this vital element of transparency, claim that New GMOs are difficult - or impossible - to detect and therefore that labelling requirements are not needed. This is not in fact the case, what is lacking is the will on the part of seed and biotech companies to contribute to transparency, as well as the political will and funding for research to ensure the development of detection methods.
Seed and biotech companies should be obliged to provide detailed information on the genetic modification of a New GMO and the respective reference material. This is perfectly possible, as – given that for patented products (all New GMOs and the techniques used to produce them are patented), companies possess specific modification information, reference material and testing methods in order to enforce their patent rights.
Any patented seed product can be distinguished from other products. What makes life complicated for authorities is that companies often refuse cooperation and treat reference material as “confidential business information”. In an ideal world, companies would provide reference material to enable competent authorities to develop testing methods for official controls and to keep unauthorised, illegal new GMOs out of EU value chains.
The second piece of the puzzle to ensure transparency, is increased research funding. The EU Commission’s study on new genomic techniques reports that national funding for detection methods, risk assessment and monitoring has amounted to 1.6% of the total research funding for New GMOs. And EU level funding is even worse. The EU Commission doesn’t take responsibility for providing necessary budgets and research capacities at EU level. The current and past European Research and Innovation funding programs show that the EU has not funded any research on detection methods so far and appears not to have plans to do so via ongoing programs. This is all the more alarming as the entire EU food sector has been asking for detection methods and a corresponding commitment by the EU regulatory bodies for years. 31 EU parliamentarians from five political groups have addressed this omission in an open letter to the responsible commissioners, including a call for concrete action.
Traceability systems are essential
In addition to setting up research programs for detection of New GMOs, the EC has to establish traceability systems. Traceability is a well-established monitoring and control standard and has been a general requirement in EU Food law for 20 years (and not specific to GMOs!). Traceability does not depend on the ability to distinguish GM products from Non-GMO products using laboratory methods. Experience with EU labels for regional specialties and organic food shows that it is possible to build robust traceability systems even when the information displayed on the label cannot be verified in a laboratory via a detection test.
Traceability is also part of existing EU GMO legislation. It requires GMOs to be identified through documentation systems when technical evidence is not possible. This is a long-established practice - for example for oil from GMO soy and sugar from GMO sugar beet. GMO labelling can be guaranteed by legally binding traceability alone. For this, GMO developers must be obliged to disclose the method by which they produced their GMO.
We know that all this is possible and now the onus is on the biotech companies, the European Commission and national governments to ensure that the funding is there, and the systems needed are established.