14 EU countries call for ‘unified approach’ to gene editing in plants

On 14 May, the EU ministers for Agriculture gathered in Brussels for the Agrifish Council. [EUROPEAN UNION]

This article is part of our special report The EU future of new plant breeding techniques.

The Netherlands and Estonia are leading a coalition of 14 EU member states calling on the next European Commission to update EU GMO laws with regard to so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs).

12 other EU member states supported the discussion point added by the Dutch delegation to the last meeting of EU agriculture ministers, which took place last week (14 May).

In addition to the Netherlands and Estonia, the list of EU countries supporting a “unified approach” to NPBTs includes Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain,  Sweden, and the UK.

According to an EU source, the group of countries requested a common EU approach on gene editing and called for a revision of EU GMO rules to be added to the working programme of the next European Commission.

In their opinion, an update has become necessary after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a ruling last year saying organisms obtained by mutagenesis should be considered GMOs and therefore subject to the safety and marketing obligations laid down in the EU’s GMO directive.

In a note to EU farm ministers, the Dutch delegation also reminded that organisms obtained by mutagenesis have been used in farming for many years and have a long safety track record.

Until last year’s ruling, NPBTs were exempt from the GMO directive. EU countries were free to decide whether to subject them or not to the obligations laid down in the GMO directive.

The European Commission promised after the Agriculture Council that it will come up with a “robust response” to the EU court ruling and draft a legislative proposal in due time. “I expect that a new initiative will be required in the next Commission,” said EU agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan in a press conference after the meeting.

Commission in search of ‘robust response’ to gene editing challenge

The EU executive has already prepared the ground for a new initiative on gene editing to overhaul the current GMO legislation, EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan has said.

In favour and against

Addressing other EU ministers, the Dutch delegation said that, although the ECJ ruling provided more legal clarity regarding the legal status of mutagenesis and other NPBTs, it also invoked many other practical issues which can only be resolved by the European legislator.

According to an EU source, the Dutch government considers that innovative breeding techniques can play an important role in the much-needed shift towards a more sustainable agriculture.

Gene editing could strengthen crop’s resilience to drought, heat and salinisation, the Dutch delegation argued. It can also improve resistance to plant pests and reduce the need to use pesticides, while improving yields and boosting the production of plant proteins.

In a note to the press, Italy’s junior agriculture minister Franco Manzato supported calls to adapt the European legal framework, saying EU GMO laws were adopted when new techniques, such as genome editing, did not yet exist.

However, the far-right Lega minister used the term “new generation of genetically modified organisms” to describe NPBTs in Italian, a terminology that could lead to misunderstandings with the Five Star Movement, their coalition partners in the Italian government, who have always opposed any kind of GMOs.

Polish agriculture minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski was the only EU minister openly rejecting the Dutch proposal, asking the floor during the debate to voice criticism against the idea.

Poland cannot support a proposal which opens a backdoor for the liberalisation of EU GMO rules, a Polish source told EURACTIV, saying new breeding techniques mentioned by the Netherlands raise such a risk.

While supporting further research into the subject, the polish government strongly objects any kind of GMO in foodstuffs, the source explained.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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