The Netherlands believes the new plant breeding techniques should not come under the GMO legislation as they are as safe as traditional breeding. It also insists that a discussion on the issue should be launched soon, even before the EU Court rules on the issue.
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 genetically modified because no foreign DNA is present in their genes.
To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.
Now the case is in the hands of the EU Court of Justice, which will decide whether a specific technique called “mutagenesis” should come under the GM legislation or not.
Last April, Enrico Brivio, former EU spokesperson for Health, Food Safety, Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, told EURACTIV.com that we should “move away from a GMO-centered discussion when it comes to innovation in plant reproductive materials”.
“We should not treat all new techniques as ‘hidden’ GMOs,” he pointed out.
The European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) published an explanatory note on new techniques in agricultural biotechnology on 28 April.
EU sources told EURACTIV the note was not an opinion on the legal matter and that the executive considers that “a broad EU reflection on new breeding techniques and innovation in the seeds sector and beyond is needed”.
Rekindling the discussion
The Commission is organizing a conference on biotechnology in agriculture on 28 September, and the new plant breeding techniques case is expected to feature prominently in the discussions.
“The main aim is to initiate a discussion on whether EU authorities can share the view that the Directive should not apply to plants resulting from the use of New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs), provided these plants are at least equally safe as plants obtained by traditional breeding,” the Dutch proposal noted.
According to the proposal, the current regulatory framework has a disproportionate effect on costs and puts obstacles to the use of innovative technologies in the EU. In addition, the lack of legal certainty leads to an increased “disharmonisation as regards the application of the Directive to products resulting from the use of NPBTs”.
As for the Court’s ruling, the Netherlands stresses that there is “no need to wait” for the interpretation of European legislation and a policy debate on NPBTs should be launched.
“The Dutch authorities see a pressing need to address the underlying issues at stake in the short term, which includes making the implementation of the Directive more workable in view of ongoing technical and scientific developments,” the paper reads.
A Dutch diplomat told EURACTIV the proposal is first and foremost an attempt to bring about clarity.
“For a number of new plant breeding techniques, it is unclear under the current rules whether they qualify as GMO or not. The discussion of these techniques has been mired for over 10 years,” the diplomat noted, adding that the current state-of-play is not beneficial for the protection of the environment, human health, and the internal market.
“The proposal seeks to rekindle the discussion. It includes conditions under which techniques (NPBTs) would be exempted from the GMO rules. Of course, these are open for discussion.”
“In the end, we mostly want clarity for our citizens and companies,” the diplomat explained.
The Court case
Analyzing the proposal, the diplomat made it clear that provided these techniques are ‘just as safe’ as normal plant breeding, there should be no increase of the risks.
Referring to the court case, the diplomat noted that there were no attempts to pre-empt the outcome of that case and explained:
“This discussion will remain with us regardless of the outcome of that court case, and we need a solution for all techniques for the longer term […] we believe our proposal could make it possible to deal with new breeding techniques that we have now, but also future techniques as they arise”.
The ‘new GMOs’
The European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), a farmers’ organisation, issued a strong statement against the Dutch proposal, claiming that Amsterdam makes it easier for the seed industry to “seize the existing agrodiversity”.
“We urge all European Union governments to strongly reject this proposal, which would sacrifice peasants, consumers, citizens and the environment solely to quench the thirst for profits of the seed and agro-industry,” the ECVC said.
It added that these new biotechnology-driven techniques were developed by the seed industry to counter consumers’ massive rejection of ‘old GMOs’.
“The name has changed but the sanitary and environmental hazards remain the same,” they said.
“The Court of Justice of the European Union should soon take a decision on the application of these legislations to ‘new GMOs’. Is this why the industry wants to hastily amend them?” the ECVC asked.
Petra Jorasch from the European Seeds Association told EURACTIV, “The Dutch proposal asks for a revision of the directive 2001/18. We do not see a need for this.”
“We see that at least those plants from new breeding methods which are indistinguishable from plants produced by traditional breeding, can already today be exempted on the basis of the current directive without any changes,” she said.
“The ECJ will give guidance on that during the next months. This guidance should be taken into account first, before asking for any other legislative initiative,” Jorasch added.