- Hans Weber
- June 6, 2023
EU agri ministers renew push on genetic techniques to bolster sector
EU agriculture ministers are pushing the European Commission to relax rules on new genomic techniques (NGTs), arguing this is needed to bolster the sector in the face of increasing droughts, climate change and yield losses.
“We only need to modify our old legislative framework regulating modern breeding techniques,” Czech agriculture minister Zdenek Nekula said during a press conference following an informal meeting of EU agriculture ministers on Friday (16 September).
The term new genomic techniques (NGTs) – or new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) – describes a number of scientific methods used to alter genomes with the aim of genetically engineering certain traits into plants, such as drought tolerance.
As per the 2018 EU court ruling, organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques are categorised as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), meaning that, in principle, they fall under the EU’s GMO Directive.
According to Nekula, this framework is a “limitation” for European farmers which brings about “brain drain to countries outside of the EU,” leading to significant damage.
Citing concerns that a lack of fertilisers, combined with soaring energy prices and climate change, could see a dramatic drop in agricultural production in the EU, the Czech minister said EU farmers could be helped by “using innovation and results of research in agriculture, stressing that the loss of yields of key crops is a “risk that we cannot underestimate”.
“We need to support [new genomic techniques] NGTs and breed new varieties,” he said, adding that this will “ensure the EU and world can function in a more complex context, all the while keeping [the EU’s] competitiveness.”
A source inside the meeting told EURACTIV that other agricultural ministers also voiced their support for the technology, including those from Sweden, Lithuania, Netherlands, Malta, Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Belgium.
This is not the first time that a number of member states have voiced their support for easing the EU’s rules on genetically modified organisms, with the Netherlands and Estonia leading a coalition of 14 EU member states calling for such a move back in 2019.
However, others took a more cautious approach. For instance, German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir suggested that while this technology had potential, it would not address the concerns in the short run, while the Cypriot minister warned that NGTs should not undermine other possible sustainable approaches, such as carbon farming.
But for the EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, the change could not come fast enough.
“We need rapid solutions for new genetic techniques,” Christiane Lambert, president of COPA, told ministers during the meeting, adding that she “very much welcomed the ambitious messages that have been made” and pushing for” new swift approval for low-risk substances.”
“On all issues, farmers will remain constructive partners to ensure food security and climate neutrality,” she added.
Green campaign groups, however, remain highly critical of the technology, warning of their potential impact on health and the environment, as well as the concentration of power into just a handful of industry players.
Commission proceeds with caution
Following the outcome of a 2021 Commission study, which concluded that the current legal framework governing gene editing is insufficient, the EU executive is currently reviewing the EU’s rules on technology.
The presentation of a legislative proposal is expected in the second quarter of 2023.
For his part, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski refrained from offering his support for such a move but said that it is “necessary to consider this issue” promising this will be done in next year’s proposal.
However, while he stressed the need to continue the process to make EU agriculture more sustainable and resilient, he indicated the Commission would proceed with caution.
“There are opportunities from genomics but everything needs to be based on scientific evidence and solid analysis and with respect to public health, environment and in the economic interest of our farmers,” he warned.
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