New Breeding Techniques and Genetic Engineering – Conference at the Ombudsman’s Office
September 11, 2018
The importance of the conference held by the Committee on Sustainable Development of the Hungarian National Assembly, the Ombudsman for Future Generations, the Association of Hungarian Nature Defenders, i.e. the Hungarian branch of Friends of the Earth, the Hungarian Association for Organic Culture and the Central Hungarian Green Society is in itself underlined by the recognition of the potential and consequences of human interference with natural processes by using the tools of genetic engineering.
Through the utilization of the method of genetic modification in agriculture and food industry, the human body and nature, which are exposed to many different environmental damages anyway, become involved in interaction with species and varieties with features that have never existed during evolution, or products prepared from these, which may pose further health and nature protection risks. The organisms created in this way can reproduce themselves even in a multiple way, so they can easily escape human control. In Hungary, these questions are taken especially seriously: according to a specific reference made by the Fundamental Law of Hungary, Hungary wishes to ensure the right to physical and mental health, among others, by agriculture free from genetically modified organisms.
The stormy development of gene technology brings up the fundamental dilemma of modern research and technology: can we do everything that we are capable of? From DDT to the Contergan tragedy, there are several warning signs that show that the answer can definitely not be “yes”. It is a condition to resolving the dilemmas that ethics (including organic and environmental ethics) should represent weight in making economic decisions. However, the situation is that we may have increasingly serious doubts in this respect. One of the balances, in addition to responsible thinking, may be social participation, which may give an opportunity, against the increasingly daunting predominance of financial interests, for adopting decisions that point beyond momentary interests of profits and that reckon with the interests of the future generations too.
Through the consistent application of the precautionary principle, which was so strongly emphasized in the most recent decision of the Constitutional Court on well-boring (No. I/1216/2018), many disasters of technological roots may have been avoided and can of course be avoided in the future. In February 2018, it was in this spirit that the Ombudsman for Future Generations formulated his view on plants produced by genetic engineering: until a professional consensus is reached in judging genetic manipulation, the GMO directive should also extend to these procedures.
The position taken by Dr. Gyula Bándi was also supported by two recent developments of key importance. As a result of the initiative taken by the advocacy organization of small French agrarian companies called Confédération Paysanne (Farmers’ Union), the Court of Justice of the European Union, in its judgment adopted on July 25, 2018, following extensive scientific and legal analyses, stated that the products manufactured by genetic engineering technologies should also comply with the health and environmental criteria referring to GMO’s, their traceability should be ensured, and they should be labelled. According to the justification provided by the Court, these new methods allow the production of varieties modified by genetic technology at such a pace and proportion which cannot be compared to those that are the result of the application of the traditional methods of random mutagenesis.
The other important warning came from the very sector of genetic research. The scientists studying the effects of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology claim that the new method regularly caused extended mutations, as well as major genetic reshuffling even far from the targeted DNA sections, the danger of which had been considerably underestimated to date. The researchers of Francis Crick Institute and the Wellcome Sanger Institute think that a lot more research projects will become necessary to prove the security of this technology. “In the application of genetic editing, a very cautious approach is needed to ensure that the changes in the DNA are those and only those which the experts meant to generate”.
Due to the many unclarified issues, in order to protect nature and human health more efficiently, the application of the precautionary principle is highly justified, in order to ensure the avoidance of any potential negative effects, which can only be remedied with utmost difficulty later. Ombudsman for Future Generations Gyula Bándi pointed out, in his statement issued on this topic in February that “as long as scientific judgment is uncertain in deciding a professional question, then in order to enforce the protected rights appropriately, we should conduct a thorough risk analysis based on scientific research, and ultimately, we should make our decision based on the narrowest possible interpretation, not leaving space for any such consequences that cannot be reversed later, or which can only be reversed with utmost difficulty”.
After the Court of Justice of the European Union decided that the plants produced by genome editing are also subject to the GMO directive, it became justified to thoroughly revisit the situation, with special regard to its legal consequences in Hungary. In this spirit, the conference organized at the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights sought the opinion of three important groups of stakeholders on the topic of GMO’s: the representatives of science on the professional questions of genome editing, the political decision-makers on the policy implications, as well as the wider public by representing the views of the affected civil society organizations, as well as the analytic positions taken by the lawyers. This threefold structure also indicates that although the core of the social disputes about genome editing is of a scientific and technical nature, the relevant regulation will ultimately be determined by the values that are chosen by society, due to the environmental and social risks that are unavoidably posed by these procedures. As it was earlier indicated by the Ombusdman for Future Generations, “a decision on environmental and health risks can never be one of a purely scientific nature, it is closely linked to the values chosen by the community, to which law can only provide assistance”. The situation is that any decision regarding the extent of permissible or undertakable risks cannot be purely made by the expert, i.e. it cannot be either purely scientific or purely economic.
The decision adopted by the Court of Justice of the European Union created a clear legal situation: all those products which were produced by relying on the new genome editing technologies should be regarded as genetically modified micro-organisms (GMO’s), as was underlined by vice-chairman of one of the co-organizers of the conference, i.e. the Hungarian Association for Organic Culture Péter Roszík. – In light of this, what still lies ahead is translating the decision of the Court into practice. This is why the government should ensure that no such organisms produced by applying the new genetic engineering techniques should reach the environment from now onwards which have not undergone the relevant licensing procedure. It is imperative that no plants developed in this way should become part of agricultural cultivation.
It is also required that the Hungarian control authorities have the right methods for identifying GMO’s produced by the new technologies in order to prevent the entry of unlicensed genetically modified micro-organisms to Hungary, added acting president of the Association of Hungarian Nature Defenders István Farkas. – On the other hand, action should be taken on the level of the European Union to avoid that unlicensed genetically modified produces and food products enter the European market.
Dr. Gyula Bándi, Ombudsman for Future Generations
Association of Hungarian Nature Defenders, i.e. the Hungarian branch of Friends of the Earth
Hungarian Association for Organic Culture