Genetically engineered plants: Reinforce precaution!

Insufficient scientific and legal basis for the cultivation and import of genetically engineered plants

18 July 2016  In a letter to the EU Commission, Testbiotech and other organisations argue that there is an insufficient scientific and legal basis to authorise further genetically engineered soybeans that are resistant to glyphosate and other herbicides. Moreover, there has been a fundamental change in the circumstances that allow the cultivation of genetically engineered maize: This is emerging with new alien plant species that are becoming invasive in the EU, and which can cross with maize to spread transgenes into the environment. Therefore, the organisationen are demanding that the EU Commission reinforces the precautionary principle and prioritises the protection of human health and the environment over and above the interests of companies. Industry has been pressurising the EU Commission for months now to force through new authorisations.

Problems with new authorisations for genetically engineered soybeans

Genetically engineered soybeans awaiting authorisation for import into the EU are cultivated in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and the US, and contain residues from spraying with herbicide formulations with glyphosate as one of the ingredients. Further additives such as tallowamine can be mixed into these formulations and these are known to be much more toxic than glyphosate. Usage of these additives is already prohibited in some EU member states. The health risks of these formulations that are allowed in North and South America have never been assessed by the EU. This is a major gap in current risk assessment that was acknowledged for the first time in a letter the EU Commission sent to the EFSA sent in February 2016. This gap still exists even though the EU Commission extended the approval period of the active substance glyphosate.

Besides being made resistant to glyphosate, some of these plants have also been engineered to be resistant to other herbicides, such as dicamba and isoxaflutole. Consequently, there is a risk that the combinatorial effects of the residues left behind from spraying could enhance their toxicity. The health risks due to these combinatorial effects have never been assessed, despite the active ingredient isoxaflutole being classified as "likely to be a human carcinogen”.

After Testbiotech and other institutions took up this position, the authorisation was delayed for several months. But after the renewal of the authorisation for glyphosate, Testbiotech is concerned that the EU Commission will now also give the go-ahead for the import of these soybeans.

Cultivation of genetically engineered maize must be stopped

The cultivation of genetically engineered maize in the EU has become more problematic since teosinte was found growing in Spain, which is the most relevant region for the cultivation of genetically engineered maize in the EU. Teosinte is a wild relative of maize and native to Mexico. Crossings between teosinte and maize can enable transgenes from genetically engineered maize to spread and persist in the environment. Teosinte was found growing in Spanish maize fields as a new alien species as long ago as 2009. Since then, no effective measures could be identified to prevent teosinte from spreading further. Teosinte has reportedly been found in France as well.

One of the preconditions for cultivating genetically engineered maize in the EU is that there are no wild relatives to which the transgenes can spread. Consequently, no further cultivation can be allowed. After Monsanto had concealed the problem for several years, civil society organisations informed the EU Commission in February 2016 about the outbreak of teosinte. In response, DG SANTE requested the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to assess the data.

On 8 July 2016, the EU Member States discussed new authorisations for the cultivation of genetically engineered maize events 1507 and Bt 11 as well as the renewal of authorisation for maize Mon810. In their letter to the EU Commission, the organisations demand that transgenic maize is no longer allowed to be grown because teosinte could possibly acquire transgenes and produce insecticidal toxins. This could potentially be a major threat to farmers and the environment.

In the light of this recent development, Testbiotech is today starting an e-mail petition to alert the EU Commission.