The scientists behind the GMO deregulation lobby – A story of vested interests

Many scientists currently active in agricultural biotechnology who lobby for deregulating so-called ‘new genomic techniques’ (NGTs) in the European Union (EU) have either direct or indirect interests in commercialising and marketing new genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for example, through patents, patent applications, or other connections to the seed industry. An investigatory report commissioned by the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament called ‘Behind the smokescreen: Vested interests of EU scientists lobbying for GMO deregulation’ recently uncovered this.   

Context: A political momentum to deregulate 

There is a strong push for relaxing requirements in the regulatory framework governing all GMOs in the EU – which mandates strict risk assessments, traceability, and labeling requirements. This current framework guarantees food producers’ choice to use or not use GMO crops, transparency and freedom of choice for consumers to eat GM-free food.  

Large corporations are increasingly developing and using NGTs like TALENs, Zinc Finger Nuclease, or CRISPR/Cas9 under the mantle of food security, innovation, and sustainability. This discourse is highly contested but, worryingly, increasingly picked up by EU policymakers.  

The role of industry-linked science in this push for new GMOs is not to be underestimated – especially as a source of alleged credibility. Already in 2021, the lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has published a study on the three largest scientific institutes that contribute to the pro-GMO lobbying campaign: the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), the EU network for Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE) and the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA).  

New report reveals depth of vested interests among EU scientists 

The new report, written by a group of researchers and editors, dives deeper into the commercial interests of the scientists largely affiliated with the agribiotech industry. Some of the key findings: 

  • 64% of the members of the EPSO working group on Agricultural Technologies and 32% of EU-SAGE members have a vested interest in the commercialisation of GM plants. This means they benefit from it financially or in terms of career development, either personally or via their organisations. However, none of them declare these economic interests; 
  • 38% of EPSO Agricultural Technologies working group members and 23% of EU-SAGE network members hold one or more patents or patent applications related to GM processes or products; 
  • 21% of scientists at EPSO and 10% at EU-SAGE are involved in a seed or biotechnology company, by holding a position or shares in such companies; 
  • Certain public research institutions, like the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, have strong links with one or more of the three lobby groups, as well as the agricultural biotechnology industry. 

Other scientific voices oppose ‘precision breeding’ 

At the same time, a group of 91 international scientists and policy experts have released a public statement opposing the use of the term ‘precision breeding’ to describe gene editing, on the grounds that it is ‘technically and scientifically inaccurate and therefore misleads Parliament, regulators, and the public’ because gene editing is neither precise nor is it breeding. Claire Robinson from the watchdog “GMwatch” comments: “It is not only misleading but also dangerous, as deregulating these new techniques will have serious socio-economic consequences, as well as potentially serious impacts on health and the environment.” 

According to the Greens/EFA report, similar scientific concerns can be found in research areas that pertain to the negative consequences of an unchecked release of new GMOs, like ecology, agroecology, socioeconomics, toxicology, and public health that are severely underrepresented in the scientific discourse.  

Transparent science and the precautionary principle 

It is clear that scientists and scientific institutes mobilized by the agribiotech lobby give credibility to pro-GMO discourses have vested interests, beyond the scientific strive for knowledge creation. This needs to be communicated transparently to and recognized by policymakers. 

At the same time, many researchers oppose deregulation efforts and appeal to the precautionary principle that applies in science, and which was re-affirmed by the European Court of Justice ruling in July 2018. These voices must be heard on the EU level to have a fair and balanced discussion about the merits and limitations and risks of GMOs, NGTs, and the consequences of potential deregulation.  

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