EU health chief wants more information on gene editing

"Kyriakides: I have always made clear that we need to have a broad and open debate whether, and if so, how, biotechnologies could help making our food system more sustainable both for citizens and the environment." [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

This article is part of our special report Innovation, CAP and Green Deal: A tough equation?.

The new EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides wants more information about the controversial issue of gene editing and for now, she seems less enthusiastic than her predecessor Vytenis Andriukaitis.

“For this purpose, and following a request of EU ministers last autumn, we will be preparing a study on new genomic techniques, foreseen for spring 2021,” she told EURACTIV.

The issue of gene editing and biotechnology generally in EU agriculture has taken centre stage since the 2018 European Court of Justice ruled that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

The request for the study, which should be submitted to the Council by the end of April 2021, states that while the ruling brought “legal clarity” as to the status of new mutagenesis techniques, there is still uncertainty about what the next steps will be at the national level as well as in academia and research.

EU study to clarify gene editing court ruling further muddies waters

After the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques (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. But what this means in practice remains unclear.

Kyriakides said innovation, in all its forms, is essential “particularly if we want to reduce the current dependence on chemical pesticides, as our Green Deal communication announced in December”.

“I have always made clear that we need to have a broad and open debate whether, and if so, how, biotechnologies could help make our food system more sustainable both for citizens and the environment,” she added.

The Cypriot politician also referred to the GM debate saying it has been a controversial issue in the EU for many years now.

“Even though cultivation of GMOs is almost non-existent in the EU – which is a decision taken by member states – GMO products are imported to feed farm animals,” she said.

On the other hand, former EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis had been more vocal on gene editing, although he only spoke out toward the end of his mandate.

“Scientific facts speak for themselves. We know that these new breeding techniques can help us tackle key challenges such as food security and food intolerances. The potential seems endless, from improved agronomical characteristics to a reduction of the pesticide and herbicide use,” the Lithuanian politician wrote in an op-ed for EURACTIV in December 2019.

Communicating better?

Yet, it is not clear how and if this new cutting-edge technology will be used in Europe’s fight against climate change.

Environmentalist NGOs strongly oppose gene editing, saying it’s an agri-food industry attempt to introduce “new GMOs” in the market.

For their part, EU farmers say placing gene editing under the GM legislation would damage their competitiveness on a global level, as it would prevent them from using tools to increase their productivity.

US State Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue held a number of meetings with EU officials including Kyriakides and Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, earlier this week.

Asked by EURACTIV if he felt that EU policymakers are ready to open up a debate over the future of biotechnology in the bloc, he replied: “There was some anxiety regarding the ability to counteract some of the NGOs who are out here spreading fear regarding hazard-based rather than risk-based approach”.

Perdue also urged EU politicians to better communicate the story behind gene editing.

“We have a responsibility to communicate that to the public: that these are not weird Frankenstein type of genes,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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