Agrifood Brief: Gene-editing super league

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30 - Gene-editing study: background, summary, reactions

 

This week: EURACTIV’s agrifood team delves into the publication of the Commission’s controversial new study on gene-editing, hearing reactions from a range of stakeholders, including Green MEP Tilly Metz, centre-right MEP Herbert DorfmannGarlich von Essen, secretary general of EU seed sector organisation Euroseeds, and Eric Gall, deputy director of the EU organic association, IFOAM

 

As the second half of the EU gene-editing game gets underway with the recently-released Commission study on new genomic techniques (NGTs), the two opposing teams are ready to pitch in their star players.

If the gene-editing issue were a football match, the opposing teams would be those who consider these techniques to be on a par with ‘conventional’ genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – and, therefore, to be banned in Europe – facing off against those enthusiastic about the potential of genetic engineering.

Or, in other words, ‘new GMOs United’ vs. ‘Genetic Arsenal’.

The new GMOs United broke the deadlock by scoring a goal back in 2018 when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) released a game-changing ruling.

The ECJ ruled that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, leaving the industry ‘shocked’ and the Commission ‘surprised’.

From that moment on, new GMOs United started a lucrative Italian-style catenaccio, ‘parking the bus’  in front of the goal to protect their lead.

And it worked: despite several appeals and attempts on target, the Genetic Arsenal did not manage to spread the opponent’s defence.

Their main chance came thanks to an assist by the EU Council, who requested a study from the Commission to bring some legal clarity on the matter after the ECJ ruling.

In short, the study was like a penalty shot.

The Commission stepped up to the penalty spot and sent the new GMOs goalkeeper the wrong way to equalise just before the referee signalled the end of the first half.

The study was released on Thursday (29 April) and was an opportunity for the Commission to formally take a stance in favour of NGTs.

Make no mistake: it was already clear that the EU executive – and its food safety service DG Sante in particular – had a soft spot for gene editing.

Toward the end of his mandate, former EU’s health boss Vytenis Andriukaitis wrote a pro-NGTs column on EURACTIV.

It reads: “Now, we found a faster way to breed, mix and produce better varieties – via gene engineering. This could sound like a success story, right? Alas, a tide of suspicion and fear pushed these innovations outside the EU.”

With its newly released study, the Commission has made clear that, although respecting the ECJ ruling as a form of inter-institutional courtesy, they are of the view that the current framework governing NGTs is insufficient, calling for new policy instruments to be considered.

The new concept is the “targeted approach” they want to pursue. The Commission does not want to reopen the whole Pandora’s box of the GMO directive, but has instead chosen to focus on the NGTs that they consider most promising.

Such a selective, case-by-case approach is essentially the exact opposite of the arguments put forth by environmental NGOs, who maintain that all organisms obtained with these techniques should be labelled as GMOs.

The EU executive also highlighted the potential that NGT products and their applications have for contributing to the aims of the EU’s environmental flagship policy, the European Green Deal.

This assumption is yet to be demonstrated, but it’s a clear signal from the Commission and it means: ok, we like that.

So, what to expect from the second half of the gene-editing match?

After the half-time, the new GMOs United could send on their star player: the German government.

In September, Germany will be holding elections and the Greens will be likely called to play a central part in the creation of the new ruling coalition. There’s even speculation that the country could see a Green politician at the helm of its government.

And it is no secret that the Greens take the issue of gene editing at heart.

The first political reaction after the publication of the Commission’s study that dropped in my mailbox was from the German delegation of the European Greens.

Only one hour and a half afterwards did I receive the (substantially similar) comment from the European Greens.

So, green is the colour, gene editing is the game.

On one side, the Commission is pushing this green-tinted new approach to gene-editing, on the other, a Green-led government in Germany could become a tiebreaker.

See for instance how the EU animal welfare agenda proceeds in full gear thanks to the active lobby of the German government.

But it is not only about the Greens’ antagonism toward gene editing. The German organic market is booming and the potential contraposition between gene-edited and organic products is looming.

And this contraposition could become a fast counterattack launched by the new GMOs United since the Commission is also pushing on organic.

Anyway, we’re just at half-time and everything is still to play for.

The gene-editing revolution could change the way we conceive food in Europe, creating climate-resistant superfood. Or it could end up like the Super League project in football, never seeing the light.

(G.F.)

Agrifood news of the week

Portuguese farm minister envisages 2-day super trilogue to secure CAP deal

As the end of its presidency approaches, Portugal will call another decisive two-day ‘super trilogue’ to wrap up for good talks on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform. The agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes takes a stock of the negotiations in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV’s Agrifood editor, Gerardo Fortuna.

Commission reopens gene editing’s box amid sustainability claims
A new study from the European Commission has concluded that the current legal framework governing new genomic techniques (NGTs) is insufficient and indicated that new policy instruments should be considered to reap the benefits of this technology. EURACTIV’s agrifood team has the details.

Expert: UK risks farm consolidation, fragmentation post-Brexit
The UK has promised a greener and more pleasant land after breaking free of the EU’s farming subsidy programme. But some warn that the new plans could leave small farms at a disadvantage and leave British farmers on uneven and uncertain ground. Natasha Foote has more.

New plan edges CAP negotiators towards deal on social conditions
The European Parliament has put forward a new proposal designed to link Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to social working conditions in an “easy and un-bureaucratic manner” in a bid to reach a compromise on what has become a controversial point in the CAP negotiations. Natasha Foote has the story.

Geographical indications: what will change after Brexit?
From Welsh lamb to Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, the protection of British geographical indications (GIs) are unlikely to cause any great headache after Brexit, although care will be needed when handling the issue in future trade talks. Gerardo Fortuna has more.

Aligning EU-UK phytosanitary measures must be ‘top priority’, warn agri industry
The EU and UK may have finally ratified their trade deal, but question marks remain over how the two partners will align their phytosanitary regulation, which is causing a considerable headache for the agrifood sector. Learn more.<

Germany calls for mandatory labelling of egg products in the EU
German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner has proposed that products containing eggs must carry information on the housing system used for laying hens, but many of her European colleagues voiced concerns about the red tape this could entail. Julia Dahm has the story.

Coping with climate change: crisis funds and carbon farming
What is the agricultural sector doing to cope with the coming climate crises? What exactly is carbon farming, and how can it contribute to the adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the sector? And what support is on offer for the sector which faces the full brunt of climate change? EURACTIV takes a closer look in this video reportage.

Brexit, climate change nothing to ‘wine’ about, say French growers
France is likely to remain the UK’s undisputed top wine supplier despite the challenges posed by Brexit, climate change and rising international competition. EURACTIV France reports.

WTO chief targets EU’s farm policy as part of global discussion on subsidies
The managing director of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said she wants to discuss China’s industrial subsidies but also state aid given to farmers, such as Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, as part of efforts to improve the multilateral trading system. Learn more.

Could the UK knock Germany off the top spot for animal welfare?
Germany and the United Kingdom are both angling to become pioneers in the field of animal welfare, with the UK saying Brexit has given it new freedom to boost standards. EURACTIV Germany reports.

‘Black day’ leaves UK fishing worse off than before Brexit
The collapse of talks on a fishing quota deal with Norway has exposed the vulnerability of the UK’s fishing industry and left it in a weaker position than when the UK was in the EU, fishing leaders have said. Benjamin Fox has more.

News from the bubble

Nutri-score: 30 MEPs from the Greens, liberal and socialist groups signed a letter addressed to EU’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides joining the scientists’ plea for making the colour-coded Nutri-Score label mandatory for the entire EU. The letter, seen by EURACTIV, says that the discussion on having a system adopted on the basis of its scientific background is disrupted by commercial interests. “Powerful lobbies, supported by some member states, have used misleading statements in order to discredit and offset the choice of Nutri-Score,” it continues. See here for background.

Prohibited algae: The European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirmed that the addition of the alga Lithothamnium calcareum in the processing of organic foodstuffs such as rice- and soya-based organic drinks for the purpose of their enrichment with calcium is prohibited by the EU law. The case involved the German company Natumi which uses a powder obtained from the cleaned, dried and ground sediment of that alga as a non-organic ingredient of agricultural origin.

Bees are buzzing: The Portuguese Presidency plans to put the revision of EFSA’s Bee Guidance document on the agenda of June’s AGRIFISH Council after lobbying from the European Parliament and NGO’s  for the risk assessment on pesticides to be brought to the political level, for more transparency.

Korean GIs: The EU and the Republic of Korea reached an agreement on the extension of the list of geographical indications (GIs) protected in the annexes of the EU-Republic of Korea agreement. This process marks the upcoming 10th anniversary of the agreement by enlarging the number of geographical indications protected by 43 EU GIs and 41 Korean GIs. The parties agreed to continue in the near future the discussions on further additions of geographical indications in the framework established under the agreement.

Soil protection: Parliament has called on the Commission to design an EU-wide common legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of soil, addressing soil threats and promoting restoration measures. Learn more.

Gene-editing debate heats up: On the back of the hotly contested report on gene-editing this week, the ENVI Committee has organised the public hearing ‘New GM techniques in the food sector: impacts on health and the environment?’ on the 10 May.

Agrifood news from the Capitals

FRANCE
The yearly festival of urban agriculture kicked off in France last weekend. Usually organised as the “48 hours of urban agriculture”, this year’s edition has seen events organised on different dates all across the country until early July. The festival allows citizens to discover urban farms, shared gardens and street greening projects across a range of participatory events organised by civil society organisations or companies. Furthermore, €8,2 billion of the 2020 CAP package have been distributed to French farmers, the ministry of Agriculture announced on Monday (26 April). More than 450,000 farmers have thus received financial support from the EU pot since last October, accounting for 99.9 % of demands. (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)

ESTONIA
On Tuesday (27 April), the Estonian Chamber of Environmental Associations (EKO) sent a set of proposals to the Minister of Rural Affairs for the next seven-year cycle of agricultural policy. EKO emphasised that Estonian agricultural subsidies of the new funding period must focus more on organic farming, preserving landscape biodiversity, preventing of water pollution and conservation of soil’s good health and restoration of carbon sequestration. Read more.

ITALY
Italy’s recovery plan presented by PM Mario Draghi before the Italian Parliament will devote €3 billion to improve the sustainability of the agri-food chain. In addition, €330 million euros are also earmarked for planting 6.6 million trees and creating 6,600 hectares of urban forests in 14 cities. Other €14.15 billion of resources will go to combating hydrogeological instability and efficient management of water resources. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

UK 
Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots has offered the first hints of what Northern Ireland’s new Agricultural Policy will look like, according to Agriland. Speaking during his most recent Minister’s Questions slot, Poots said work was now at an “advanced stage”, adding that he hoped to publish the first draft policy framework over the next few months. “The framework has been defined around the four key outcomes of increased productivity, improved resilience, environmental sustainability, and improved supply chain functionality,” Minister Poots said. (Natasha Foote| EURACTIV.com)

SPAIN
Unemployment in agriculture rose 1.7% in the first quarter of the year compared to the previous quarter, reaching 187,600 people, according to the Labor Force Survey (EPA). EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro reports.

GERMANY 
German minister for the environment Svenja Schulze has called for a stringent regulation of genetically modified crops in the EU. Speaking ahead of a study on new genomic techniques published on Thursday (28 April), the paper argues that existing EU regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be extended to include new genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR. “Every genetically modified product in the EU should continue to be risk assessed and labelled”, Schulze said. Olaf Bandt, chair of the environmental association BUND, welcomed the ministry’s position, saying that a deregulation of GMOs would go “at the expense of the environment and all those trying to eat or produce GMO-free food”. The German Farmers’ Association presented its own position paper, in which it calls for crops created through new genetic engineering techniques to be excluded from the scope of the legislation in order to facilitate scientific progress. “Our farmers urgently need new cultivation techniques to make crops more resistant”, the association’s secretary general Bernhard Krüsken said. (Julia Dahm| EURACTIV.de)

Events

4 May – There is an ENRD Workshop on how to create linkages across geographies, themes and initiatives in rural areas.

5 May – There is the final meeting of the ENRD thematic group in the current cycle to contribute to developing the “EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas (LTVRA)” announced by the President of the European Commission and where the Commission is foreseen to adopt a Communication in June 2021.

5 May – What role can European farmers play in sustainable food systems? Find out the answer to this question and more at the online event, ‘Europe and Food: Ensuring environmental, health and social benefits for the global transition’

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