This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming.
EXCLUSIVE / After Europe’s decision to keep its door shut to GMOs, the European Commission is trying its best to avoid opening a new trade row with the United States over how to regulate so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NPBTs).
The EU’s decision on how to regulate NPBTs is “not yet clear”, Commission officials admit.
But in any case, time has come to “move away from a GMO-centered discussion” when it comes to innovation in plant reproductive materials, an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV.com.
The executive’s attempt to downplay the issue comes as EU and US officials prepare for a new round of negotiation over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in New York next week.
The European Commission comments came in response to revelations by Greenpeace suggesting that the US has pressured Brussels not to apply GM legislation to New Plant Breeding Techniques.
The environmental group issued a statement on Thursday (21 April), claiming that the Juncker Commission has shelved a long-awaited internal legal assessment which asserted that plants produced through gene-editing and other new breeding techniques should fall under EU GMO law ― and therefore follow stringent testing and approval procedures.
Referring to internal Commission documents obtained by Greenpeace, Corporate Europe Observatory and GeneWatchUK said this happened due to “intense lobbying by US representatives for the EU to disregard its GMO rules, which require safety testing and labeling”.
“The documents show that US pressure is focused on potential barriers to trade from the application of EU GMO law. They suggest that the EU should ignore health and environmental safeguards on GMOs to pave the way for a transatlantic trade agreement,” Greenpeace said.
A new round of TTIP negotiations starts on 25 April in New York and this development will likely heat up the debate related to the agriculture chapter of the trade deal currently under negotiation.
No foreign DNA
New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering. For the agri-food industry, the plants resulting from these new breeding techniques should not be considered as genetically modified because no foreign DNA is present in their genes, which might have developed naturally.
Agribusinesses also claim that breeding new crops is essential for ensuring food security by developing new varieties that are higher-yielding, disease resistant or drought-resistant.
To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.
As EURACTIV reported, the European Commission has delayed a much-awaited legal analysis several times, on whether new plant breeding techniques should be considered GMOs.
But the document obtained by Greenpeace suggest NPBTs were put on the agenda of at least three meetings between the Commission’s health directorate (DG SANTE) and US representatives between 7 and 28 October 2015.
“Commissioner Andriukaitis and US representatives met on 23 and 25 November 2015, although it is unclear whether new GMOs were discussed. However, new GMOs were on the agenda for the commissioner’s visit to the US between 30 November and 4 December 2015, where he also met US trade representative Michael Froman,” the statement reads.
“On 3 November, the US mission also sent a letter to the Commission warning it of ‘unjustified regulatory hurdles’ for New Breeding Techniques. It added that “different regulatory approaches between governments to NBT classification would lead to potentially significant trade disruptions.”
EU decision on NPBTs “not yet clear”
Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission spokesperson said that the executive was still proceeding with a legal analysis to decide whether organisms produced by new breeding techniques fall under GMO legislation.
“Reflection on breeding techniques is ongoing inside the Commission but the outcome is not yet clear,” said Enrico Brivio, EU Commission spokesperson for Health, Food Safety, Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
“In any case, in that context we would like to invite to move away from a GMO-centered discussion, when it comes to innovation in plant reproductive materials,” the EU official stressed, underlining that “we should not treat all new techniques as ‘hidden’ GMOs”.
Referring to allegations that the decision to shelve the legal opinion is linked to TTIP, Brivio ruled out any connection with the trade pact.
“We can only reiterate what was said before ― the breeding techniques have strictly nothing to do with TTIP.”
Liberals support NPBTs
Jan Huitema, a Dutch MEP from the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said that the EU should keep an open mind about new breeding techniques in biotechnology.
“We should see what the promising effects are before we say no,” Huitema told EURACTIV in an interview. “We really need to have a discussion on science-based effects to make a decision on this,” he said .
He added that plant breeding techniques could be very promising, because in a way “we are accelerating the classical breeding of plants”.
“In a lot of those techniques, we don’t talk about GMOs that use genes of others species into plants, but we stick to the gene of the gene cocktail of the plant itself. So the outcome of those new breeding techniques is not different than we could have with classical breeding.”
Need for a “robust” legal framework
Jon Parr, Chief Operating Officer at Swiss agri-food giant Syngenta, agrees that Europe should take a science-based approach.
Speaking to EURACTIV, he said innovation in plant breeding is critical to improving crop productivity without compromising on the quality or environmental sustainability of production.
“In this respect, new breeding techniques that bring together the best which nature has to offer are critical. Such techniques can help to improve the nutrition and taste of food or ensure it is more tolerant to climatic stress or can resist better the diseases which destroy crops,” Parr said.
Europe, he commented, is blessed with some of the best breeders in the world, whether they work at large companies like Syngenta, or independently.
“Together, they have helped put Europe in a leadership position. What I think we need now is a robust, predictable, and science based legal framework to ensure that Europe can maximise its competitive advantage and enable all stakeholders to share in the social, economic and environmental benefits that can be delivered through new plant breeding techniques,” Parr stressed.
A GMO fate for NPBTs?
It is not the first time that Europe has infuriated its trading partners with its reluctance towards innovation-driven solutions in the agriculture sector.
The GM crop industry is unwanted in Europe. Despite the huge amounts of EU money already spent on GMO research, it still represents just the 0.1% of agricultural land in the bloc.
Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy, Hungary, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia have all rejected GM crops while in Britain, only England cultivates GM crops.
Jon Parr said that it was hard to argue that growers who have used the technology for nearly two decades now are not doing so safely.
“Equally, however, many Europeans clearly have concerns that need to be addressed if the technology is ever to be accepted here. In the meantime, I think we need to make sure that growers have access to other innovative tools and practices to farm sustainably.”
In a joint position paper published in March, environmentalist NGOs Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Europe, IFOAM EU stressed that the EU GMO law should be fully applied to the so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’.
“Legal analysis shows that they are covered by EU GMO law. If they were to escape EU regulations, any potential negative effects on food, feed or environmental safety would go unchecked. European consumers, farmers and breeders would have no way to avoid GMOs,” the paper reads.
“The Commission should leave no doubt that all products of genetic engineering are subject to EU GMO law which requires rigorous risk assessment, detectability and labelling.”
New breeding techniques (NBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering.
They are seen as a promising new field for the agri-food sector and "are even necessary to meet the challenges of global changes such as population growth and climate change", according to a report by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EU executive's in-house scientific body meant to inform policymaking.
Backers of the technology say NBTs should not be considered as GMOs because no foreign DNA is present in the resulting plants, which might have developped naturally. To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.