Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and new genetic engineering techniques

What are GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are the result of genetic engineering at the sub-cellular and genomic level, where the intentional insertion, deletion of genes or alteration of genetic information (DNA) takes place in a laboratory.

GMOs are associated with unsustainable farm practices and the industrial farming model. The use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in food and farming promote single varieties with a high degree of uniformity, as well as posing a risk to the environment, human and animal health, farmers’ rights for seed and farmers’ independence. That is why the release on the market and/or the environment of GMOs is regulated in the EU (Directive 2001/18/EC and Regulation (EC) 1829/2003) . Risks of contamination threatens the GMO-free food chain, and consequently the economic wellbeing of farmers and producers.


What is the organic sector position on GMOs?

All organic regulations around the world prohibit the use of GMOs in organic products, as they are in stark contrast to the philosophy of organic farming. In the European Union, the current organic regulation (Regulation 834/2007, article 4), and the new one (Regulation 848/2018, article 5) clearly state that organic agriculture is GMO-free by definition.

The organic movement and IFOAM EU strongly oppose GMO use and demand that all GMO contamination of non-GMO materials be prevented by the GMO producer in accordance with the polluter pays principle.
IFOAM EU calls for a moratorium on the cultivation of GMOs in its "Malta declaration" (March 2010) and actively works for GMO-free agriculture in Europe (see Keeping GMOs out of Organic).


What is at stake with the New Genetic Engineering Techniques?

Since the adoption of the European GMOs regulation (1990 modified in 2001), new techniques of genetic modification were developed (Oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM), Zinc finger nuclease technology types I to III (ZFN-I, ZFN-II, ZFN-III), CRISPR/Cas, Meganucleases, Cisgenesis, Grafting on a transgene rootstock, Agro-infiltration, RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM), Reverse Breeding, Synthetic Genomics ...). Even though these techniques were being developed, their legal status remained unknown for a long time, as their risks and impacts were not clear.

In 2015, IFOAM EU adopted a position on new genetic engineering techniques. IFOAM EU considers the new genetic engineering techniques as techniques of genetic modification that lead to GMOs according to the existing EU legal definition (Dir. 2001/18/EC and Reg.1829/2003). In 2017, IFOAM International also published a position paper on Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms, reaffirming that GMOs created through new genetic engineering techniques have no place in organic food and farming.

A group of French organizations initiated a case to the French Conseil d’Etat to clarified the legal status of the different techniques so-called by the biotechnology industry as ‘mutagenesis’. This case was then referred to the European Court of Justice to decide on the status of new breeding techniques.

On the 25th of July, the European Court of Justice confirmed that new techniques of genetic modification are GMO and must be regulated as such.
For the organic sector, it is crucial that these techniques that engineer living organisms through technical, chemical or biotechnological intervention in the cell and/or nucleus are subjected to risk assessment and if authorized, should be subject to mandatory traceability and labelling requirements that apply to other GMOs (Reg. (EC) 1829/2003 and 1830/2003).  If these techniques are not subject to traceability and labelling requirements, it will be impossible for the organic sector to remain GMO-free.

To better understand the position of the organic sector and what is at stake with new genetic engineering techniques, IFOAM EU published a leaflet on new GMOs . This document was translated in the 23 official EU languages, here.

Learn more about the work of IFOAM EU on GMOs: here

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and new genetic engineering techniques