Head-to-head: No, the EU should not allow for the use of NGTs in plants

While it is widely agreed upon that our food system requires a deep transformation, not everyone believes gene-editing techniques are the way forward. Marta Messa, secretary general of Slow Food International, argues that NGTs are part of the problem rather than the solution
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By Marta Messa

Marta Messa is the secretary general of Slow Food International

06 Jan 2023

Imagine going grocery shopping and only later learning that several items that landed in your cart contain organisms whose DNA was modified using new genomic techniques (NGTs).

This scenario thankfully cannot happen right now in the European Union: the European Court of Justice ruled that NGTs fall squarely under the obligations laid down by the genetically modified organism (GMO) directive. In other words, they can be authorised following an assessment of the risks they present to human health and the environment and must be subject to traceability, labelling and monitoring obligations.

But things could change as seed corporations and biotechnology industry lobbies are putting pressure to exclude certain NGTs from these rules. It is very worrying to see the European Commission and some EU Member States heeding their siren calls. 

There is evidence that NGTs can have serious implications for food, feed and the environment. Disregarding these risks and the precautionary principle with the argument that NGTs can help us face the climate crisis is misguided.

Food labelling is another hot topic: proposals on the labelling of origin, animal welfare and nutritional content are expected soon, as the Commission is showing its commitment to “empower[ing] consumers to make informed, healthy and sustainable food choices”.

Although the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety has stated on several occasions that transparency for consumers will not be jeopardised by any new proposal on NGTs, we still haven’t heard any official commit to the continued clear, easily accessible, and simple labelling of NGTs on food packaging that would allow any citizen to choose GMO-free food. Not labelling NGT products also impedes informed choices by farmers, food producers and retailers.

Our food system needs to be deeply transformed, but NGTs are not the way forward. They are part of an intensive model of agriculture based on monoculture, widely acknowledged to be a contributor to climate change, biodiversity loss, poor farm revenues and unhealthy diets.

NGT advocates argue that these are key to achieving the EU’s pesticide reduction target. When in fact, many new GM crops currently in the commercialisation pipeline are designed to increase herbicide use. Surprised? That has been a leading business model of biotech companies for the last 20 years, geared to herbicide-tolerant crops together with the herbicides they are sold with.

Many new GM crops currently in the commercialisation pipeline are designed to increase herbicide use

There is also the argument that NGTs can help achieve food security. Food security experts warn against further intensifying food production as we already produce enough food to feed the world. Food insecurity is caused by poverty and inequality. Experts, researchers, and civil society alike call for a transition to agroecology – a holistic approach that builds long-term soil fertility, healthy agroecosystems and has the potential to guarantee long-term food security – while reducing pesticide use.

As the EU is preparing to decide on whether and how to deregulate NGTs, already more than 400,000 citizens have signed a petition launched by more than 50 organisations from across Europe, Slow Food included, to call on national governments and the European Parliament to oppose the weakening of GMO rules.

Because no one wants a Europe where the industry is let free to gamble with what is in our shopping carts.