German Greens: The ‘X’ factor in EU’s debate on new genomic techniques

A possible participation of the Greens in government could shift Germany's stance on gene editing. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

With the Greens increasingly likely to hold sway in the future German government after the 26 September election, EURACTIV took stock of the party’s position on gene-editing, which could prove to be a turning point for Germany’s position and the ongoing debate in the EU.

Support for gene editing is gaining ground at the EU level with the publication of a recent Commission study on new genomic techniques (NGTs), which concluded that the EU’s current legal framework on GMOs is insufficient for the new techniques and that new policy instruments should be considered to harness their full potential.

German Agricultural Minister Julia Klöckner has been an outspoken proponent of new gene-editing technologies.

“I welcome the fact that the EU Commission is initiating the long-overdue modernisation of the European legal framework on NGTs,” she said in response to the publication of the study.

Echoing the Commission’s stance, she stressed the new technologies’ potential for contributing to “more resource protection, global food security, and the success of the Green Deal”.

However, a possible participation of the Green party, who have historically opposed the use of this new technology, in the German government could be a turning point for Germany’s position on these upcoming proposals. 

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.

Historic opposition

Unlike Klöckner, the Green faction in the German parliament maintains that NGTs should continue to be regulated as strictly as “traditional” genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

“As the new gene-editing tools are much more potent than all preexisting ones, we call to maintain strict approval procedures including a risk assessment and the labelling of genetically modified products,” Harald Ebner, spokesperson on genetic engineering and bioeconomy policy for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen in the German parliament, told EURACTIV.

“Only if GMOs are clearly marked as such, can freedom of choice for consumers and producers be preserved,” he added.

Ebner pointed out that if the Commission wants to retain a high level of protection for human health and the environment, “this necessarily means that a comprehensive risk assessment has to be conducted in every case.”

He added that this would also be in line with the precautionary principle laid down in the EU’s legal framework.

This position was echoed by Martin Häusling, agriculture spokesman for the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament. 

“Consumers need to be able to choose whether genetically modified food ends up on their plates or not, regardless of whether we are talking about new or old technologies,” he said in response to the Commission’s report.

“This, and risk research according to the precautionary principle, cannot be watered down by an adaptation of the legislation”, he added.

Agrifood Brief: Gene-editing super league

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This week: EURACTIV’s agrifood team delves into the publication of the Commission’s controversial new study …

Dissenting voices

However, the Greens have recently seen some dissenting voices within the party, who showed a more open mind when it comes to the new technology.

Anna Christmann, the Greens’ spokesperson on innovation and technology policy in the German parliament, welcomed the Commission’s report.

“The European Commission’s study shows that we need to keep thoroughly considering opportunities and risks of new technologies like CRISPR/CAS9 in agriculture,” she told EURACTIV.

If the new technologies “can contribute to a more sustainable agriculture and to climate protection, we should look into that critically but constructively,” she said.

Christmann had already stepped forward in favour of NGTs in June last year, when she published a paper backing the use of the new techniques, together with a number of other Green MPs.

However, her colleague Ebner was quick to assure that the pro-NGT camp is a minority faction within the party.

He pointed out that the paper had been published in the context of a broad in-party debate leading up to the adoption of a new manifesto of principles last summer, but said the party had finally agreed on its anti-GMO stance.

“In our manifesto of principles we have made a clear decision and formalised the consensus position”, he said, while acknowledging that “diverse debate within a party is necessary and welcome”.

Both the Greens’ new manifesto of principles and their manifesto for the upcoming federal elections now include explicit anti-GMO positions.

“GMO-free production must continue to be protected by precautionary approval procedures and a labelling requirement,” the election programme reads.

Following up on its study, the Commission now aims to carry out an impact assessment to prepare new legislative proposals that target selected NGTs.

[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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