Deregulation of new GMOs: an open door for herbicide tolerant and pesticide producing plants?

The EU institutions are currently discussing a proposal to deregulate plants produced with new genomic techniques (NGTs). The hurry and lack of scientific basis for this proposal is a huge threat to health and environment. In its current form it would open the door for herbicide resistant plants. Roundup Ready varieties constructed with NGT could lead to a surge in the use of glyphosate on corn, sugarbeet and rapeseed cultivation in the EU.

On the 24th of January the ENVI committee in the European Parliament will vote on the Proposal for a Regulation on plants obtained by new genomic techniques (NGT). We have sent a letter to the parliamentarians to share our deep concerns about these new Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The proposal by the Commission and many of the amendments tabled so far contain extensive shortcomings. They will inevitably lead to unacceptable risks for human health and the environment. They would also have far-reaching negative impacts on rights of farmers, producers, retailers, consumers and public authorities. 


Herbicide tolerant crops

In particular, we are concerned by the herbicide-tolerant crops that will lead to an increase in the use of harmful pesticides. This is in particular witnessed in the America’s with glyphosate tolerant soybean, corn, rapeseed and sugarbeet production. It has massive consequences on public health and the environment. Also pesticide-producing crops might be constructed using new genomic techniques. They carry high risks for the environment, and increased resistance of pests.

Overall, it is essential that all GMOs, including NGTs, remain subject to a robust risk assessment to adequately assess possible impacts on ecosystems and their functioning, as well as on human health. This requires a thorough risk assessment of each individual NGT plant, in relation to human, animal and environmental health, as well as an assessment on the consequences of the increased presence of pesticides in the environment for the above-mentioned GMOs.

To our deep concern, this is not the case in the current proposal. Most recent proposed amendments of the rapporteur in the ENVI Committee drastically weaken the text even further, and would turn mandatory risk assessment into a rare exception. In this respect, we would like to also specifically underline the risks regarding Herbicide-tolerant (HT) and Pesticide-Producing (PP) Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). 


Explosion of glyphosate use with herbicide tolerant crops

Herbicide Tolerant GMOs are associated with well-known and far-reaching detrimental impacts on the environment, public health and quality of water supplies in the United States, Latin America and Asia. HT GMOs in soybean, maize, rapeseed and sugarbeet and cotton production have led to an outspoken increase in the use of herbicides. Between 1995 and 2014 the global use of glyphosate showed an almost 15-fold increase, mainly due to an increase in HT crops. Intensified use of glyphosate has also led worldwide to glyphosate-resistant weed species, affecting yield production and incentivising further pesticide use. Experience has shown that resistance leads to the use of cocktails of pesticides applied to counter these developments. 

It is highly problematic if herbicide-tolerant (HT) GMOs will not remain regulated as under the current Directive 2001/18/EC. In the current proposal of the Commission, they could even be exempted from robust risk assessment, authorisation and labelling requirements. Despite a large body of scientific evidence showing the harmful impacts of glyphosate on human health and the environment, its licence for use was recently reapproved in the EU for 10 years. The use of HT GMOs in the EU is now promoted by the same industry as glyphosate and would open the door to increased use of glyphosate. 


Pesticide Producing GMOs

PP GMOs (‘insect-resistant GMOs’), making up 57% of global GMOs, have been associated with risks for beneficial, non-target organisms. Their cultivation leads to a substantial increase in the amount of toxic pesticides present in the environment because of the insecticides produced by the plants themselves. A plant that used to be non-toxic suddenly becomes toxic to bees, butterflies, ladybirds and many other beneficial insects, as well as soil life and biodiversity. An expression of insecticides in leaves, stem, roots, pollen, nectar, guttation fluids and soils could have dramatic negative consequences on insects and ecosystems. The widely used BT varieties use a gene from a different organism and would still be regulated. But with NGT already contain toxins in a certain part of the plant could be expressed elsewhere in the plant. No external genes are needed for this and these toxic plants would not be regulated anymore. This is not even mentioned in the proposal and the underlying documents, while laboratories are working on this.

NGT plants should be assessed individually and for all matrices. Moreover, PP GMOs can lead to increased pest-resistance) affecting crop yields negatively and harming the environment. Evidently the assumed advantages of such crops are extremely limited in time while they trap farmers in a situation of dependence towards seed companies.  


GMOs led to an increase in pesticide use

Contrary to the NGT plant producers' claims, evidence shows that HT and PP GMOs have not led to a decrease in sales of pesticides in countries where they are allowed. They offer zero benefits for ecosystems, farmers and citizens. It is clear that important lessons need to be drawn from the detrimental impacts of HT and PP GMOs in different parts of the world. The introduction of these GMOs and their impacts in the EU would be devastating and must be avoided. Given the urgent need to reduce pesticide use to safeguard human health and ecosystems, HT and PP GMOs should not be approved. At the very least, it is essential that they are regulated and subjected to robust risk assessment, as with other GMOs.

Many scientists have warned about the shortcomings of the Commission’s proposal. They stress that in its current form it falls short to ensure health or environmental safety. It also poses alarming risks regarding  transparency, labelling and freedom to choose, the lack of coexistence measures for GMO/NGT, conventional and organic crops and patenting , which need to be addressed thoroughly. (more details in the letter we send to the Parliament)


NGT are a threat while real solutions are available

It is essential to ensure that the development of truly sustainable and resilient food production systems remains central in EU decision-making. GMOs have been associated with a decrease in genetic diversity, increase in monocultural production, decreased resilience against pests and increase in pesticide use. Deregulation of NGTs is completely unnecessary to ensure EU food security and sovereignty, on the contrary. Sufficient scientific and empirical knowledge is available to show that cropping systems based on integrated pest management and enhancement of ecosystem services allow us to face societal and environmental needs.

Read our letter to the parliament on Deregulation of new GMOs.

© Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe), Rue de la Pacification 67, 1000, Brussels, Belgium, Tel. +32 2 318 62 55

Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the European Union, European Commission, DG Environment, LIFE programme. Sole responsibility for this publication lies with the authors and the funders are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.