Dutch biotech researchers with conflicting roles lobby for deregulation of new GMOs
An intense lobby battle is currently being waged by industry to try to make EU GMO rules on environment, health and freedom of choice obsolete. Dutch TV Zembla's recently broadcast programme "Tinkering with Seed" (13 April 2023) assesses the reality behind the wild promises attributed to a new GMO technique (Crispr-Cas), by the biotech industry. It also exposes the corporate interests promoted by a small group of biotechnology researchers, fulfilling multiple contradictory roles.
The broadcast used more than a thousand pages of internal documents, emails and reports obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory from the Dutch government. These documents show that Dutch government officials are constantly informed and lobbied by biotech lobby organisations HollandBio and Plantum, and by a small group of biotechnology researchers from Wageningen University. They even held a retreat together in a luxury inn!
A number of biotechnology researchers of Wageningen University and Research (WUR), a Dutch agricultural university, have lobbied the EU institutions and the Dutch government in favour of the deregulation of CRISPR-Cas, a genome editing technique, for many years. (as evidenced here and here).
Simultaneously, researchers from the same group are paid by one ministry to act as consultants for so-called "policy support projects" on new GMOs. Their exact names were redacted in the obtained email correspondence. WUR employees, for instance, provided text to the ministry of Agriculture on how to answer parliamentary questions, input for speeches by the minister on the subject of new GMOs, or suggestions on how to respond to an EU consultation held in preparation of the potential policy change. And then, they are also hired by the European Commission at various stages to help analyse consultation submissions, allowing them a first-hand insight into, and influence over, the EU policy process!
In the Zembla broadcast, Ernst van der Ende (director Animal Sciences Group at WUR) claims that “scientists of the WUR do not lobby”. He even claimed that as a scientist “you constantly show both the advantages and disadvantages of a technology”.
Both statements are in stark contrast with reality.
WUR biotech researchers have lobbied for years in favour of deregulation, and the university constantly pushes a biased picture in favour of the technology. For instance:
- WUR researchers take Dutch officials every few months into lobby meetings organized by the European Plant Science Organisation to discuss the way forward for deregulation of new GMOs, including finding ‘positive examples’ of new GMOs.
- WUR as part of Top sector TU was part of a project that aimed to look for ‘positive examples’ to showcase the technology. These examples would then, as explicitly stated in emails, be used for lobbying. (See further below)
- The CRISPR-Con event organized in 2019 at the WUR was one big promotion event for the technology. Critics were sidelined, as confirmed by three academics and a representative of the Asociacion ANDES who attended the event.
Zembla asked Van der Ende if, looking back, he thought WUR researchers had provided a fair and balanced consideration of both the potential and the risks of the technology. His answer was: “I think that scientists, including from Wageningen, in the past didn’t play a good role in that and we draw our lessons from that. We embrace the debate about that both internally and externally, to be clear what it can deliver and what not.” Van den Ende acknowledged that scientists should provide information both on the advantages and the disadvantages of a technology, something the biotech researchers of WUR have not done until now.
Esther van Turnhout, Chair of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Twente, said in Zembla that the way WUR researchers had been providing one-sided arguments to the Dutch government was “bad, and worrying in view of the integrity and independence of science”.
Corporate Europe Observatory previously highlighted the role played by ‘scientist-lobbyists’, including from Wageningen University, in its report ‘Derailing EU GMO rules’. A recent report commissioned by the Green Group in the European Parliament also discovered that many of these 'scientist-lobbyists' frequently have conflicts of interest. Many of these individuals have a personal interest in the deregulation of GMO techniques, due to interests in research funding or patents.
What do the new documents obtained from the Dutch government show? A few key observations
The many and conflicting roles of Wageningen biotech researchers
Ahead of a potential proposal to weaken GMO laws, or get rid of them altogether, the European Commission (DG SANTE) held a public consultation in Spring 2022.
Emails obtained by CEO show the three, conflicting roles played by Wageningen researchers (p.1-3):
1. A Dutch official asked WUR researchers for advice regarding a specific question in the EU Commission’s consultation. A crucial question in fact, dealing with defining when exactly a GM crop from a new technique like CRISPR may fall outside the legislation. The Dutch government’s response to the consultation ultimately used verbatim the text that the WUR staff had provided to them.
2. At the same time, another WUR employee, Gijs Kleter, emailed the same Dutch official to inform them that he was involved in the analysis of the submissions to the same public consultation. This means that he was being paid by the European Commission to contribute to the preparation of the change in legislation. Therefore, he notes to the official, he is not actually allowed to “prescribe” anything - but he nevertheless continues to provide a substantive answer to the Dutch official anyway.
3. Finally, a WUR employee, anonymous but on behalf of WUR as an academic institute, also completed the consultation. WUR’s submission argues for deregulation, and against consumer choice through GM labeling, as is currently required. (See the public consultation page and download the excel file with all submissions).
Biotech researchers at WUR have been lobbying for the abolition of the safety rules governing GMO techniques such as CRISPR and another technique called cisgenesis for 15 years, and often have a personal interest in doing so. Given this fact, it is both objectionable and highly questionable that the same researchers were hired as consultants to advise Dutch ministries and also separately by the European Commission to assist with the preparation process of the potential change in rules. There is a clear conflict of interest here.
A cosy luxury retreat for officials and lobbyists
On 10 November 2021, Dutch officials, together with lobbyists from HollandBio and Plantum, as well as WUR staff, went on a cosy retreat together in a luxury inn in Edam, North-Holland (p.129, 141). On the agenda was the EU Commission’s plan to change the rules for new GMOs. The retreat was organised by a Dutch technology platform, “Top Sector TU” - members include representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Wageningen University, and industry. No NGOs or representatives of organic agriculture were present at the retreat. This shows a blurring of professional boundaries, as well as a high degree of privileged access for those who have the greatest commercial interest in deregulating new GMO techniques.
Searching desperately for a new GMO ‘posterchild’ to lobby with
Top Sector TU is a member of the European technology platform (ETP) 'Plants for the Future'. ETPs like this were set up by the European Commission to allow industry to co-write research agendas, thereby influencing heavily where billions of European research money is allocated.
In an email to the Topsector TU members, (p.337) from April 2022, José Vogelzang, scientific director of Topsector TU, asked for a joint effort to look for "providing good NGT [new genomic techniques] examples to communicate about via fact sheets towards the EC". The email continues : "The action is urgent, because we want to have the fact sheets ready around the summer for lobbying purposes in connection with the EC legislation timeline. After that, the material will start to be used for lobbying the European Parliament (in connection with voting on legislation at a later stage)."
The search for 'good examples' is a continuous struggle for the biotech lobby, because they don’t yet exist on the market. This is also one of the main topics discussed at the European Plant Science Organisation EPSO lobby meetings in Brussels, meetings which Wageningen researchers regularly take Dutch officials to. A Wageningen employee himself concedes (p. 187) in the email communications that sustainability claims for a particular crop are hard or impossible to prove before it is being grown in practice.
Consumer choice on GM at risk
Currently, there is little or no GM food on the market in the EU. Where GM products are sold, the products have to be clearly labeled indicating this. The biotech industry is very keen to get rid of this EU requirement. It is clear from the public consultation organised by the European Commission last year that the Dutch government is still officially undecided when it comes to consumer choice and GM labelling. But a Wageningen employee also completed the consultation, on behalf of the university, strongly opposing on-the-pack GM labeling, claiming it is discriminatory. How Wageningen University, as an academic institution, reached this position remains a mystery.
In 2018 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) concluded that plants and animals made with new techniques like CRISPR should be covered by the current EU GMO legislation.
Since the ruling, the lobby campaign by seed multinationals for the deregulation of new GMOs has intensified.
This Corporate Europe Observatory report describes how this lobby campaign has been run in recent years. Companies like Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva (DowDupont) and their lobby groups (Croplife EU, Euroseeds, etc) are of course actively involved. But biotechnologists from various research institutes are also active in favour of deregulation. A recent report by the Greens in the European Parliament demonstrated the conflicts of interest that many of these 'scientist-lobbyists' (including from WUR) have.
For example, many of the 'scientist-lobbyists' are active through the a lobby platform called EU-SAGE, which was set up by the Flemish Biotechnology Institute (VIB) that has Bayer and BASF on its board. They falsely claimed to decision-makers that it represents "more than 100 research institutes". Through this activity the lobbyists were seeking to create a semblance of scientific consensus on the safety and necessity of GM techniques.
Furthermore, several of these biotechnologists were active in a TaskForce convened by the Brussels-based think tank Re-Imagine Europe. Funded with €1.5 million from the Gates Foundation, the think tank produced reports in support of deregulation of GM.
Finally, "scientist-lobbyists" are bringing national government officials from various European countries on a regular basis to lobby meetings organized by the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) to discuss the deregulation of new GMOs.