This article is part of our special report Innovation, CAP and Green Deal: A tough equation?.
The plant protection part of the upcoming Farm to Fork strategy should take a realistic and science-based approach that allows farmers to “explore all possible solutions”, French conservative MEP Anne Sander told EURACTIV.
If we want to be ambitious, the MEP from Les Républicains added, we “cannot leave aside the new technologies, such as precision farming and smart farming, that are not sufficiently exploited today and that could be promising for our crops, both in economic terms and in terms of sustainability”.
In reference to the July 2018 European Court of Justice ruling that NPBTs fall, in principle, within the scope of the GMO Directive, Sander said that this judgment “must be analysed in detail and be the subject of thorough and serious debate in the European Parliament.”
“New technologies exist and we cannot ignore them, as this would be counterproductive, all the more so because if we do not seize these opportunities, others will do so in our place. If we want to remain competitive, we must move forward and explore all the avenues open to us.”
However, Sander warned that this is costly both in terms of financial and human capital, and this need for investment and training for our farmers must be taken into account in the Commission’s strategy.
With the European Commission set to present its Farm-to-Fork strategy in spring, the debate about the way that EU agriculture will deliver the new green objectives has already heated up.
Speaking at a recent event on integrated pest management and plant protection, Céline Duroc, the general director of the French association of Maize Producers, said Europe would soon reach a “technological impasse in farming” which will require all the innovative solutions that we have at our disposal, including new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs)
She said the regulation surrounding NPBTs is “vague and inappropriate” for the “ecological-technological transition that is required” in agriculture. She added that this is causing uncertainty in the farming community.
The event drew together experts from the maize and sugar beet sector to discuss good practices and innovative developments to prepare for the ambitious objectives set out in the Green Deal and the upcoming Farm-to-Fork Strategy.
The speakers highlighted the importance of innovative, science-based solutions for the future of Europe’s agricultural sector but they also emphasised the need for a clear and solid regulatory framework taking into account the agricultural reality and practice.
Alexander Krick, deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers, said that beet growers’ toolbox is “being depleted too quickly” and that without innovative tools farmers would be “left exposed and vulnerable to pests and disease”.
He stressed the importance of plant breeding and declared his “unequivocal support” for NBPTs, adding that new breeding techniques could shave off up to 3-4 years of the average 10-year time frame for breeding a new variety of beet.
The sentiments of panel members echo that of the agri-food industry and EU farmers, who have called for clarity and science-based solutions to meet their objectives as part of the EU’s European Green Deal.
Asked by EURACTIV about the upcoming Farm-to-Fork strategy, Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of farmers and cooperatives organisation COPA-COGECA, said that it is not currently “very specific with its objectives” and he was therefore reluctant to comment on specific elements of the strategy.
He added that, when it comes to plant protection products, despite farmers asking for alternatives, the Commission “hasn’t done actually very good work in terms of providing us with alternatives in other fields such as biocontrol measures or new breeding techniques to improve the genetic material of the crops.”
However, genetic modification continues to be a controversial and heavily contested issue in the EU, with NGOs and anti-GM campaign groups voicing concern over their unforeseen effects of the technology.
Martin Sommer, policy coordinator on GMOs, patent and seeds at EU organics association IFOAM, told EURACTIV in December that genome editing is “going beyond what conventional breeding has done safely for decades,” adding that “unexpected outcomes can happen” as a result.
He therefore maintained that risk assessment procedures should “take into account the specific risks that are associated with the new techniques.”
“The EU is a worldwide leader with its sophisticated regulation, and certified GMO-free products are demanded by consumers. Copying farming systems from abroad, such as China and the US, is clearly not a good model for Europe. It can be an advantage to be a bit more careful.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]