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Are current EU policies on GMOs justified?

Abstract

The European Court of Justice’s recent ruling that the new techniques for crop development are to be considered as genetically modified organisms under the European Union’s regulations exacerbates the need for a critical evaluation of those regulations. The paper analyzes the regulation from the perspective of moral and political philosophy. It considers whether influential arguments for restrictions of genetically modified organisms provide cogent justifications for the policies that are in place, in particular a pre-release authorization requirement, mandatory labelling, and de facto bans (in the form of withholding or opting out of authorizations). It is argued that arguments pertaining to risk can justify some form of pre-release authorization scheme, although not necessarily the current one, but that neither de facto bans nor mandatory labelling can be justified by reference to common arguments concerning naturalness, agricultural policy (in particular the promotion of organic farming), socio-economic effects, or consumers’ right to choose.

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Notes

  1. See https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/2018_11_gcsa_statement_gene_editing_2.pdf.

  2. Golden Rice is modified to combat Vitamin A deficiency. It has been heavily criticized by some anti-GMO groups, partly for reasons relating to the so-called technological fix objection which we discuss in the section “Agricultural policy” below. For overviews of the controversies surrounding Golden Rice, see e.g. https://grist.org/food/golden-rice-fools-gold-or-golden-opportunity/ and https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/02/13/golden-rice-gmo-crop-greenpeace-hates-and-humanitarians-love/.

  3. It also requires precise relative values of different possible outcomes, and that all outcomes can be traded off against each other: For example, it requires that there is some precise (but possibly very large) amount of money that is worth exactly as much as a human life.

  4. For example, both the 2001 Directive and the 2015 Amendment mention the precautionary principle as a basis for GMO policy.

  5. In practice, this would require systematically withholding or opting out of authorizations of each GMO on an individual basis.

  6. This is, of course, contestable, e.g. by those who assign very great value to the environment. However, if GMOs are likely to have environmental benefit—i.e., if the use of Bt varieties is just somewhat likely to have considerable environmental benefits—then the laxity of the knowledge condition should be sufficient, since the possible benefits of using Bt varieties are of the very same kind as the possible harms.

  7. Two caveats should be noted: First, opt-outs concern individual GMOs, not GMOs generally, and second, the 2015 Amendment only covers cultivation, not use for food and feed. We ignore these two caveats below, since they do not influence the principled points, and since both may de facto or in the future not be true: At least some MS’s will likely opt out of whatever GMOs might be authorized for the foreseeable future, and the EC may succeed in getting legislation similar to the 2015 Amendment enacted that covers food and feed.

  8. It is debatable whether the EUs definition of a GMO rationalizes the distinctions between organisms that are covered and those that are not, since most of the kinds of alterations that are covered do occur naturally. For example, DNA transfer via agrobacterium—the GM technique par excellence—occurs naturally, and has, for example, occurred in the evolutionary history of the sweet potato (Kyndt et al. 2015; see also SAM 2018).

  9. Michael Palmgren, in conversation.

  10. This goes for the most widely discussed statements of these theories. Nonsentientist versions can be found within each of these four types of theory.

  11. Since the putative health benefits also (according to the proponents of a health-based pro-organic argument) set organic food apart from conventional crops, the relevant health effects are such that they would not be covered by EFSA safety assessment. They would, for example, be associated with lower pesticide residue intake.

  12. A recent analysis found that organic farming can feed the world without increasing land use, but only if combined with (1) a very large reduction in food waste, and (2) an elimination of all use of land that could be used for producing (plant-based) foods for the production of livestock (Muller et al. 2017). Neither of these are likely to be realized.

  13. See OSGATA v. Monsanto, available at http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions-orders/12-1298.Opinion.6-6-2013.1.pdf.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the Practical Philosophy Research Group at the University of Copenhagen for several discussions of earlier drafts of the paper. We would especially like to thank Xavier Landes for significant input earlier in the process, and Bjørn Hallsson for detailed comments. Funding was provided by Novo Nordisk Fonden (Grand No. NNF17SA0031368) and Københavns Universitet (UCPH Excellence Program for Interdisciplinary Research).

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Correspondence to Andreas T. Christiansen.

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Christiansen, A.T., Andersen, M.M. & Kappel, K. Are current EU policies on GMOs justified?. Transgenic Res 28, 267–286 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11248-019-00120-x

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Keywords

  • GMO
  • Policy
  • Risk
  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Labelling
  • Authorization
  • Opt-out