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Genetically modified organisms in food and beverages

Portrait of Alexander Belderok
Senior Partner
Amsterdam Office, Western Europe
+31 20 7960-600
July 14, 2021

Genetically modified organisms in food and beverages

"It's time for regulatory revisions that enable biotechnology and F&B players to innovate responsibly"
Portrait of Alexander Belderok
Senior Partner
Amsterdam Office, Western Europe

Molecular genetics is a modern technology to modify DNA. Today, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) already play a central role in our daily lives. However, GMOs have a bad image from past excesses, which led to very restrictive regulations in food and beverages (F&B), especially in the EU. Wrongly-so, in our opinion. The EU's GMO regulations are based on outdated technological insights and provide F&B players with significant loopholes to mask their use of GMOs. As a result, current regulations falsely make EU citizens feel that they are not consuming GMOs, disincentivize transparency, and harm the EU's ability to innovate.

Daunting and unprecedented challenges

Major trends of the 21st century, such as continued population growth, increasing prosperity and the collapse of biodiversity are putting great pressure on the global F&B supply chain. What's more, we need to deliver food that is both healthy and sustainable. The United Nations predict a population growth of 2 billion people over the next 30 years and a 25% increase in food demand. While non-technological solutions such as managing demand and reducing waste are absolutely critical, they will not be enough. To stand a chance to successfully address future global nutrition needs, innovation will need to come from a broad range of technologies, such as AI, robotics and biology. Among the most promising technologies, none have raised as much controversy as molecular genetics, the technology that enables targeted genetic modification of living organisms.

A potential game-changer

Rapid technological advances, notably recognized by the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, are pushing the limits of genetic modification and have the potential to revolutionize many industries. When the EU's GMO regulations were drafted, genetic modification was highly inefficient, had a limited range of possibilities and required the integration of DNA from other species. As a result, GMOs were difficult to make and differed significantly from their non-modified ancestors, resulting in significant risks. Modern technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 have revolutionized molecular genetics by enabling targeted genetic modification anywhere in the DNA with much higher efficiency and without requiring introduction of foreign DNA into the genome. As a result, modern GMOs can be made rapidly and precisely – The introduction of simple modifications no longer results in additional risk.

The EU's restrictive regulations present significant loopholes

The GMO regulation introduced by the EU in 2003 is very restrictive, but ultimately ineffective. While it prevented the use of GMO crops such as GMO soy beans, it provides significant loopholes for using GMOs and GMO-derived ingredients such as food additives, flavors and enzymes. As a result, GMOs already play an important role in the average diet of European consumers. The somewhat arbitrary regulatory definition of a GMO has resulted in indiscriminate demonization of all GMOs and disincentivizes transparency towards consumers. Moreover, the regulatory definition of a GMO seriously hampers innovation even for low-risk modifications.

Public perception and organized opposition to GMOs

Of the many application areas of molecular genetics – including bioenergy, biomaterials and pharma – consumers are typically most concerned about food and beverages. Consumers perceive high emotional proximity to food and limited added value of using GMOs. Moreover, GMO-related scandals notably associated to Monsanto have harmed public perception, causing many NGOs to campaign against GMOs and driving the emergence of restrictive regulations. However, public perception is rapidly improving and NGOs are slowly changing their standpoints under the impact of rapid technological progress in particular.

Innovation to deliver on sustainability, nutrition and health goals is needed

In short, the EU's rigid regulatory framework and the fear of a GMO revolution that has already happened are disincentivizing consumer transparency and preventing much needed innovation. Rapid technological progress and the ongoing shift in public perception make the time ripe for a thorough revision of the EU's regulations – The urgency is high, we need to deliver on health, nutrition and sustainability goals.

Report

Genetically modified organisms in food and beverages

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How fear of GMOs is preventing innovation and consumer transparency in the EU

Published July 2021. Available in
Further readings
Portrait of Alexander Belderok
Senior Partner
Amsterdam Office, Western Europe
+31 20 7960-600