Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and new genetic engineering techniques
What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are the product of genetic engineering at the sub-cellular and genomic level, where the genetic material has been altered by the means of intentional insertions, deletions or additions of genetic information in a laboratory.
GMOs are associated with unsustainable farm practices such as high pesticide use and the dependence of farmers on inputs, which also has economic consequences. The use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in food & farming promotes single varieties with a high degree of uniformity and poses a risk to the environment, human & animal health, farmers’ rights for seed as well as 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).
What is the organic sector position on GMOs?
All organic regulations around the world prohibit the use of GMOs in organic products, as they do not align with the philosophy of organic farming. In the European Union, the current (Regulation 834/2007, Art. 4), and new organic regulation (Regulation 848/2018, Art. 5) state that organic agriculture is GMO-free.
The risk of contamination threatens the GMO-free food chain, and consequently the economic wellbeing of farmers and producers. The organic movement and IFOAM EU therefore demand that all GMO contamination of non-GMO materials be prevented by the GMO producer in accordance with the polluter pays principle. IFOAM EU also actively works on practical guidelines to avoid contamination in the context of the project 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 ...). The legal status of these new techniques was not specified for a long time, as their impacts and risks were not clear.
On the 25th of July 2018, the European Court of Justice confirmed that new mutagenesis techniques are GMO and must be regulated as such. For the organic sector, it is crucial that new techniques of genetic engineering 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). Only with a solid traceability system in place, the organic sector has the possibility and capability 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.
Learn more about the project work of IFOAM EU on GMOs.
What is the alternative?
From the perspective of organic farming, it is evident that the focus must go away from yield increase but towards agro-ecology. Development-aid experts also emphasize that we do not need more ‘high-intensity’ but rather resilient systems like organic to feed the world in a sustainable manner. Agroecosystems are complex systems, and all their components, including the soil, genetic diversity, preventive strategies and breeding need to be considered in synergy.
Organic breeding activities are an alternative by focusing on locally adapted seeds that are resilient enough to secure stable yields under a variety of environmental and climatic conditions. Organic breeding is often also a participatory process that involves farmers from the very beginning of new breeding projects in a holistic approach. Visit our Seeds page to learn more about organic seed and plant reproductive material.
In 2018, IFOAM International published a position paper on breeding techniques in organic systems, which gives an overview on the techniques that are compatible with organic farming.