On 23 March 2021, AK EUROPA, the ÖGB Europabüro and MEP Günther Sidl hosted a Webinar with the title “Informed consumer choices – also regarding genome editing?” The message of the participants was clear: from consumers’ point of view, there is no reason to change the current regulations for new gene technologies.
The ECJ determined in 2018 that products of new genetic engineering processes have to be classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and that therefore the existing regulations of EU legislation on gene technology would apply. Since then, the gene technology industry has pushed for amending the EU legislation for these new processes (GMOs), and in the previous year, the Council instructed the Commission to carry out a review on this subject.
In contrast to the public debate, in which the focus is mainly on the benefits of these new technologies, a current AK Study concentrates on the viewpoint of consumers. In the beginning of the Webinar, the author of the study, Andreas Heissenberger (Federal Environment Agency) outlined possible scenarios of the legal scheme for products which are produced applying new genetic engineering processes (GMOs). He made it clear that in view of the risks, any deregulation of the existing EU gene technology legislation would not be justified. What was needed was adequate labelling and the right to choose.
In the discussion that followed, Günther Sidl, MEP and S&D gene technology chief negotiator, made it clear that all forms of gene technology were subject to strict scrutiny and that they had to be clearly recognizable for consumers. People rightly expect from the EU a high degree of food products safety and clear labels; this would also apply to all forms of gene technology. Accordingly, he rejected any idea of watering down existing standards.
Irene Sacristan Sanchez, Head of Unit Biotechnology of the European Commission, said she understood the concerns and requirements from consumers’ point of view; however, she felt compelled to emphasise the positive effects of the new gene technologies, for example in respect of the pharma industry. She also floated the idea of changing the current EU gene technology legislation.
From the point of view of bio-agriculture, which was represented in the discussion by Eric Gall (IFOAM Organics Europe), the current gene technology legislation has been in place for 20 years and it works perfectly well. He does not see the reason why GMOs should be subject to new regulations. There is also no justification why GMO regulations should make a distinction between food products and animal feed. Compared to food products, GMOs are already far more widespread in the case of animal feed.
Iris Strutzmann, AK Vienna, said that consumers need clear information on products, which they buy and consume. In Austria, 86 % of citizens want food products, which were produced using new gene technology processes to be labelled; apart from that, the demand for biological products and gene-technology-free products is constantly rising. Hence, top priority has to be given to the right to choose and the safety of food products. In any case, new legislation is not required from consumers’ point of view.
The review shall be published at the end of April 2021. The participants agreed that this would be the go-ahead for further intensive negotiations. The Chamber of Labour will continue to make an active contribution in order to safeguard the interests of consumers in Europe.