Tasos Haniotis, the deputy director-general at European Commission’s DG AGRI, views new breeding techniques as a way to manage pests in agriculture, according to a leaked document seen by EURACTIV.com.
The document is part of the Commission’s internal consultation process regarding DG ENVI-led draft biodiversity strategy, which has yet to be released.
In the document, he said the “need to better target the use of pesticides” can be addressed with a “combined strategy of providing alternatives to the most dangerous ones and enhancing the introduction of alternative pest management through new breeding techniques, bio-controls, IPM etc., and improving the monitoring of substance residues, including at farm level.”
In this way, Haniotis appears to place equal importance on new breeding techniques as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and bio-controls as tools for reducing pesticide use.
He suggested that such an approach could be developed in the Farm to Fork strategy, something that EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has already hinted at.
Speaking at the International Green Week in Berlin, in response to a question about her position on separate legislation for NBTs, Kyriakides said new plant breeding techniques would be part of the Farm to Fork strategy.
“We will be looking at this and coming up with a proposal in the Farm-to-Fork strategy, at the moment we are assessing the situation,” she said.
EURACTIV contacted the EU executive for clarification and EU sources replied that “the Commissioner was referring to the fact that we are now assessing the next steps in this context.”
“It is too early to comment on details on the Farm to Fork strategy, which will be launched this coming Spring. The detailed information will be known then,” they added.
Haniotis justified his stance with a prediction that in the future “even more pesticides will be needed,” rather than fewer.
This is because “the reduction of pesticides should start from the recognition that plant diseases will not go away with climate change – rather, they risk increasing”, he said.
Haniotis added that “reducing the volume or value of a long set of very diverse substances is, from the point of view of public health, meaningless”.
Focus on resilient farming systems
New breeding techniques continue to be a controversial issue. After the European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that organisms obtained by NBTs should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, the Council of the EU has requested a study from the Commission to clarify the situation.
While the agri-food industry and EU farmers have been calling for science-based solutions to meet their objectives as part of the Green Deal, including agricultural biotechnology solutions, NBTs continue to be contested by other stakeholders.
Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU’s agriculture policy director, told EURACTIV that the comments suggesting that IPM, which has been in EU legislation for 10 years, is “being treated as one option besides others” is “deeply concerning” and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of IPM as a principle.
“IPM is the toolbox itself; it is not one of the tools,” he said.
Asked if he agreed with the idea that NBTs could be one of the tools in the toolbox, he said they should not be part of an alternative pest management strategy, given that they focus only on one specific characteristic of one specific plant and “do not get to the root cause of the problem”, namely soil quality and carbon in soils.
He added that the focus should instead be on building “resilient farming systems” which work to increase diversity, rather than uniformity, in our farming systems, while GM techniques produce uniform plants with no genetic diversity.
“The obsession with simplified technological fixes for complex problems is a distraction from systemic change we must achieve, which is arguably more of a serious concern than the potential consequences that these technologies might have of changing the genome of living organisms,” Contiero said.
He also disagreed with the idea that more pesticides will be needed in the future, saying agriculture holds huge potential to combat climate change and the focus should be on mitigation as well as adaptation.
“There is no need to rely on pesticides; we depend on them only because the system as it currently stands has been designed for reliance on pesticides,” he added.
Commission’s internal clashes
The increasing role of DG ENVI in agricultural issues has fuelled tensions with DG AGRI, which should nominally be in charge of the EU’s farming policy.
The latest example of the clash of opinions was the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), and particularly the proposal to phase-out first-generation biofuels, which are also used to produce animal feed.
In June 2018, Copa-Cogeca, the EU farmers’ association, said they were “quite worried” about the fact that DG Agri is often disregarded when it comes to policy decisions that have a direct impact on the farming community, such as the biofuels debate.
“We are quite worried about the trend that DG Agri has been pushed aside in many agriculture-related questions, such as the future of biofuels,” said Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen.
[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Zoran Radosavljevic]