Author: Svilena Velcheva
Published On: 25/10/2019

Ivaylo Popov has a Master degree in Law and is a member of the Environmental Association for Earth’s Board of Directors. Since 2011 he has been working on the topics of food and agriculture as an expert on sustainable agriculture, GMO-related policies, common EU agricultural policy and measures to encourage small and medium-sized farmers.

Mr Popov, Environmental Association for Earth sent a letter this week calling on the Minister of Agriculture for the so-called genome-editing products. Could you clarify how these products actually differ from the genetically modified ones and why they are dangerous?

– Gene editing is a term used for a group of new techniques that have evolved at an increasing rate in recent years. The differences are generally related to the technology – it allows not only to insert genes of different species, but also to suppress the action of an existing gene in the body. Working with the so-called molecular scissors that

cut DNA at specific locations

and through natural DNA repair processes the modification is obtained. The risks are very similar to the existing, classic GMOs. They are related to the fact that, whether planned or not, DNA can be inserted into the body. We witnessed a month or two ago a big scandal in the United States when a company modified cows to grow hornless. At the same time, they had accidentally introduced a cow’s antibiotic resistance gene. This indicates that the effects and potential risks of these techniques have not been sufficiently studied and are underestimated.

Which was the decision of the European Court of Justice last July and why only now is clear that it has not being implemented?

– It wasn’t realistic to expect that the decision would have been directly put into practice, it’ll certainly takes time for both the European Commission and national authorities to prepare it. Besides that, we have witnessed that nothing has been done to implement the decision. The ECJ ruling clearly states that all products produced with new editorial techniques must

be treated as classical GMO products

and must be authorized in advance to be marketed or used in agriculture, and that we need to develop identification methods to control illegal imports into the EU and the presence of negative effects. This means that autorities need time for implementation because there’s no method currently available for detecting genome-wide products. We hoped that this situation will be solved by giving the responsible scientific institutes, with which the EC works, the mandate and fund to develop such methods. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen for more than one year.

And that’s worrying.

At the beginning of the year we asked the Bulgarian Food Safety Authority (BFSA) whether it was monitoring the availability of such products. We were told that it did not happen because there was no developed method to do that.

It is worrying that has already been put into place a commercial cultivation of such products in United States and Canada – rapeseed and soybeans. There are no large quantities of them for now and the risk of them entering the European market is relatively small, but still it exists. Unless quick action will be taken to implement the decision, we are worried that

they will also appear on our plates

without have been evaluated for safety or being monitored. It is therefore time we began to demand it publicly. Moreover, we were concerned about the request of the Finnish Presidency of the European Council.

You are talking about the Genome Editing Survey offered by the Finnish Council of Europe Presidency. Which is its purpose?

– The study requires the legal consequences of the implementation of the ECJ ruling to be examined. This means more delay in implementing the decision. And according to EU law, such a decision must be implemented immediately. Such a study should have started as soon as the decision was made, more than a year ago. Currently it is used to slow down his application. More alarming, it is also likely to be used as a tool to push through changes in EU law. We received

pressures from biotech companies

since more than a year, they have been trying to push for legislative amendments that would make the genome-wide editing of products much easier and their reaching the market much faster, at the expense of the safety and security of consumers and farmers. In this study, we see a political tool to delay the implementation of the decision and ultimately to change the legislation. It’s possible that the study’s implementation would be difficult also for purely legal or technological reasons. We have a solution to these problems. Yes, indeed there are difficulties, but instead of delaying in identifying what is already known we must begin to solve problems. Rather, such a study should determine how the wider entry of such techniques will affect farmers’ rights to produce and distribute seeds, and raise animals. With the broader penetration of such techniques

the seed market will concentrate

by imposing large companies that hold patents on these techniques. The most important thing is to investigate the ability to effectively monitor potential adverse outcomes by post-market surveillance. Instead of looking at why we can’t implement this solution, we should look for the risks to the consumer and farmers and try to reduce them.

What is the situation in Bulgaria regarding to the control of GMOs and products with modified genome? Is there any reason for the Bulgarian consumer to be worried about?

– For years, GMOs have been subjected to controls that are not perfect but at least of a decent level. Tests, product traceability, communication with other Member States to determine when and in which products there are risks. But for the genome-editing products

there’s no control.

This is extremely disturbing. Therefore, our main request is to start developing research methods, that is responsibility of the European Commission. A single detection method, a verified method at European level, should be introduced and national authorities should start using it. The role of the Bulgarian state is to require such methods to be developed as soon as possible, and not to provide a study mandate, which would delay their development even more.

What action will you take if the judgment of the European Court of Justice continues to not be enforced despite different arguments and justifications?

– We keep in touch with colleagues from all over Europe, we listen to conversations with the new commissioners to see what the new political situation will be like. This was also one of the reasons to not launch a serious campaign earlier this year, knowing that responsible politicians would soon leave their posts.

The Finnish proposal will be the first test,

if we see that politicians are trying to serve the interests of the GMO business rather than citizens and farmers we will start a serious campaign. We will try to provide as much detailed information as possible to consumers and farmers. We will take the actions that we have always took – petitions, protests, etc. But the most important thing now is to find out what the political moods are, which politicians will stand on the side of the major GMO producers and to decide accordingly what measures we can take against them. In early December, there will be a European meeting on the topic with representatives of environmental, farming and other type of organizations to discuss our future actions.

Translator: Valentina Vagge