Agrifood Brief: Disin-gene-uous business?

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Between petrol panic, driver shortages, and warnings that Christmas could be in jeopardy, there has been no lack of bad press tied to the UK’s departure from the EU this week.

This is why the UK government badly needed a Brexit win – and fast.

Thankfully, this week offered a golden opportunity for the EU’s former member to announce it will officially be relaxing the regulation of gene-edited crops.

Cue the government’s much-lauded announcement on Tuesday (28 September) for new plans to “unlock the power of gene editing”.

The UK is currently aligned with the EU framework on gene-editing technologies, as organisms produced using these techniques are classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This decision to open its doors to gene-editing – or new genomic techniques (NGTs), as the EU has recently labelled them – is a true game-changer for the UK’s post-Brexit trade and food policies.

The changes will apply only to England, with the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland free to make their own decisions on the use of this technology and agricultural policy in general. This didn’t stop the government from celebrating a win for the UK as a whole.

“Leaving the EU allows the UK to set our own rules, opening up opportunities to adopt a more scientific and proportionate approach to the regulation of genetic technologies,” a statement from the country’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reads.

Likewise, the UK’s environment and food secretary, George Eustice, said that “outside the EU, we are able to foster innovation to help grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.”

It doesn’t seem that there’s much new in this announcement that wasn’t already announced in January, as no precise timeline or information on the finer details have been offered.

While it’s still vague what exactly this means in practice, the statement commits to changing the rules relating to gene editing to “cut red tape and make research and development easier”. The aim is to allow gene-edited crops to be tested in the same way as naturally occurring new varieties.

The news doesn’t come as a surprise. The country has long earmarked relaxing regulation on gene editing as one of England’s flagship food aims, following its departure from the EU.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by critics of the technology, who have branded the move “undemocratic”. Why?

You might remember that the government opened up a consultation on this a few months back.

Some 6,500 people responded to the public consultation on the matter, giving their take on the sector’s future to help inform and guide DEFRA’s decisions around the regulations of agricultural genome editing.

The UK government committed to publishing a report on the consultation, along with the public responses, in June.

If you’re thinking, I don’t remember seeing the outcome of that, well, that’s because nothing was ever published. Until now.

The consultation results were published quietly after this week’s announcement, lost in the media storm caused by the announcement itself.

This sparked fierce criticism from campaigners, who pointed out that the government’s response showed most individuals (87%) and businesses (64%) felt that gene-edited organisms pose a greater risk than naturally bred organisms. It also showed that most individuals (88%) and businesses (64%) supported regulating gene-edited products as GMOs.

“That the government ignores this weight of public opinion is a slap in the face for democracy,” UK campaign organisation GM watch wrote in an online statement.

How the wider British public will receive the move and how this decision will impact the UK’s relationship with the EU, now on a different footing, remains to be seen.

But it is also true that the EU executive is currently reconsidering the framework on NGTs. Last week, it launched a consultation to collect feedback to guide its future legislative proposal on gene editing.

We are entering a delicate phase for biotechnology in Europe after three years of deadlock following the famous European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that stated NGTs should, in principle, fall under the GMO directive.

Echoes of the debate coming from across the Channel might also influence the discussions in Europe over this technology.

We must also consider echoes from another corner of the world, where the first-ever gene-edited food is due to go on the market…

(N.F.)

Policy loopholes mean EU farming is haemorrhaging water, say auditors
The European Court of Auditors has condemned weak, and poorly enforced policies that they say give farmers a free pass to abuse water use, levying damning criticism at EU’s farming subsidy programme. EURACTIV’s Natasha Foote has more.

French mega-basins project defended by agriculture minister ‘worries’ Commission
The European Commission is worried about a project that aims to build agricultural mega-basins in France’s Poitou-Charentes region. While farmers, activists, residents and Green MEPs see it as “water grabbing”, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie sees it as smart water management. EURACTIV France reports.

Commission says Germany lags behind in reducing agriculture emissions
The European Commission has highlighted Germany’s lack of progress in reducing emissions by implementing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Industry associations also see current plans as falling short of the mark. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Check also the latest EURACTIV’s video explainer in which we delve deeper into the latest findings of the European Commission’s Eurobarometer study to find out where EU citizens are at when it comes to the CAP.

The debate on the EU’s farming subsidies has been moved from Brussels to the EU capitals, as member states are now expected to approve the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) national strategic plans by the end of the year.

Germany will finalise its plan for the national implementation of CAP direct payments (including eco-scheme premium levels) by mid-October, agriculture minister Julia Klöchner said after a meeting with her regional counterparts.

Meanwhile, Spanish agriculture minister Luis Planas is facing the opposition of some regional farming associations who are criticising his draft plan. However, the minister is still committed to taking an ‘inclusive’ strategic plan to Brussels by the end of the year. “In Spain, there are very different agronomic models, but we cannot have 17 plans, there is only one for the whole of the country,” said Planas in a recent interview, adding that it is impossible to satisfy all the proposals coming from each community.

The draft national strategic plan has been discussed this week in the Dutch Parliament this week. Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten described before the MPs the main elements of the Dutch plan, which will feature a particular points system for eco-schemes. Farmers have to achieve a minimum number of points for each of the goals (biodiversity, soil, water, climate and landscape) and depending on the numbers of points obtained, the payment will be made at gold, silver, or bronze level. Organic farming will automatically make the gold level for farmers.

To learn more, about the national discussions on the CAP strategic plans, check out EURACTIV’s CAP tracker.

Pesticide phase-out: The ECI, ‘Save Bees and Farmers’, which calls for a phasing out of pesticides passed the magic one million signature mark this week, meaning that it will now be placed on the political agenda for debate. As a reminder, the last ECI  ended in the Commission and the Parliament backing a ban on cages in farming.

Mission on soil: The European Commission launched on Wednesday (29 September a new mission in Horizon Europe, the EU’s research programme, called “Soil Deal for Europe“. The main goal of the mission is to create 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils.

Import ban: A European Commission official has said this week that legislation to effectively ban the import of food grown using two bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides will be ready by the end of the year.  “We are now at the point where we will actually draft the regulation that will lower the MRLs for clothianidin and thiamethoxam … to the limit of detection including for import tolerances,” said EU official Klaus Berend, speaking at an event during the European Parliament’s Pollinator Week.
The two substances are banned in the EU due to their harmful effects on pollinators. “The intention is to do this for these two in the course of the remaining part of the year,” Berend said. The European Commission has also previously voiced its support for tightening restrictions on agricultural exports of banned pesticides to elsewhere in the world in efforts to expand its green goals on a global scale.

‘Turn the greenlight on’: The consumer organisation Foodwatch has called on the food industry confederation FoodDrinkEurope to stop fighting a mandatory traffic light label in a protest action in front of the association’s secretariat in Brussels-

Tackling food hunger: The EU has announced €140 million to support research in sustainable food systems and tackle food hunger via CGIAR, formerly also known as Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. The EU will fund interventions to scale up nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches such as agroecological and regenerative approaches, agroforestry and sustainable land management.

Agro-what? An article that appeared on Arc2020 this week criticised the lack of substance when it comes to the agroforestry promotion in the Common Agricultural Policy.

New speciality guaranteed: The European Commission has approved the application for the inclusion of “Salată tradițională cu icre de crap” from Romania in the Register of Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG). Salata tradițională cu icre de crap” is a product obtained from salted carp eggs, salted freshwater fish eggs, sunflower oil, sparkling water and lemon juice. It is available in two variants, with or without boiled onions.

GERMANY
Organic milk from pasture grazing is more environmentally friendly than conventional milk the German Environment Agency finds in a newly published study. According to the agency, this is mostly due to differences in the production of fodder, which is the main factor driving the products’ climate impact. Regarding direct emissions from cows’ digestion, on the other hand, organic milk is much more damaging as each individual cow produces less milk than in conventional farming. Across different milk production systems in Germany, the environmental cost caused by one kilogram of milk varies between 21 and 34 cents, the study finds. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.DE)

FRANCE
During a visit to Sirha Lyon, a world reference event for food service and hospitality, earlier this week, Emmanuel Macron underlined the importance of young people choosing to work in culinary arts and food professions. “These professions respond to the young generation’s need for meaning”, he said, adding that “they reconcile all the major questions of the moment” and namely the question of “how to feed more and more people while preserving our natural resources, our planet, the environment.” The France of 2030 will be a country of French food and taste, Macron declared. “By fighting against food waste, by creating quality, by working in short circuits”, young food professionals were “key players at the heart of this transformation”, he added. ​​(Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.FR)

SLOVAKIA
The Agricultural Paying Agency (PPA) has lost accreditation for the payment of EU agricultural subsidies as a result of many corruption cases for which several of its former officials are being prosecuted. Therefore, the Agency now only operates in the so-called conditional accreditation regime. This means that while it is allowed to distribute EU subsidies, it also has to remove doubts about its functioning. In particular, it must implement 72 remedial measures in order to continue delivering payments to farmers. Their fulfilment is now being monitored by the Commission’s auditors. The Ministry of Agriculture informed that PPA has already successfully completed around 60 required measures. „I believe that we are well prepared and that we will convince them (auditors),” said the Minister of Agriculture Samuel Vlčan. Slovakia will find out the result of the audit and the final decision of the Commission on 15 October. “We do not even think about a negative scenario, because it would mean the collapse of Slovak agriculture,” added the head of the largest agricultural association (SPPK), Emil Macho. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

ITALY
The Ministry of Agriculture has approved the first list of strategic projects in the irrigation infrastructure sector. This is an investment plan supported by the EU’s recovery fund aiming to structurally address the various emergencies related to climate change in agriculture. A total of 149 projects, amounting to EUR 1.6 billion, are considered eligible for funding. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

1-5 October | World Food Forum powered by global youth will take place at FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy

4 October – 7 October | European Parliament’s plenary

5 October | Third and final stakeholder event on sustainable use of pesticides organised by the European Commission

6 October | Finacial needs in the agriculture and agri-food sectors in Portugal, organised by the European Investment Bank

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