Italian minister: Unlike gene editing, GMOs belong to the past

The next-gen biotech do in less time what natural crossbreeding would do in several steps and more slowly, Italian Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova said. [DI MEO/EPA-EFE]

Italy’s agricultural minister Teresa Bellanova has expressed an interest in developing sustainable biotechnology, in the light of a milestone agreement on next-gen biotech between farmers’ organisation Coldiretti and the Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics (SIGA). EURACTIV’s media partner Ansa reports.

“Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the past and their cultivation is and will remain banned in Italy,” she told Ansa, adding that Italy is more interested in focusing on sustainable biotechnologies such as cisgenesis and genome editing.

Coldiretti, a leading organisation of farmers representing more than one and a half million members in Italy, will sign a cooperation agreement with SIGA, opening up an entirely new field for the application of biotech in Italy’s farming.

The agreement will be named “Camici e Trattori” (in English Scrubs and Tractors) and will focus on the application of the latest-generation biotech to typical Italian varieties, representing a turning point in the troubled relationship between the farming world and biotechnology research in Italy marked by the heated debate on GMOs.

According to Coldiretti’s President Ettore Prandini, these are techniques that do not involve the use of DNA foreign to the plant and, for this reason, can protect the biodiversity of Italian agriculture while being more sustainable at the same time by creating more resistant varieties with less pesticide use.

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Regarding vine, for instance, Italy is the country with the greatest heritage of genetic diversity, explained Mario Pezzotti, member of Siga and professor of plant genetics in Verona.

“The conservation and use of this biodiversity is essential, but so is giving traditional grape varieties the genetic characteristics to counteract the attack of pathogens and the changing of climatic conditions,” he said.

He also added that cisgenesis and genome editing give the possibility to do it without changing identity and oenological profile.

Using the next-gen biotech to protect typical varieties is a challenge that must be faced together with those who do research in Italy so that the results do not end up in the hands of a few multinationals, said Coldiretti’s Prandini.

For agriculture minister Bellanova, research in this field must be public. “Crea, which is our Italy body, must do the research through a dialogue with the agricultural world, so that research could be useful for the development of business,” she said.

However, some regulatory aspects must be clarified. In 2018, the EU Court of Justice ruled that from a regulatory point of view, plants produced with the new techniques of genetic engineering should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

Industry shocked by EU Court decision to put gene editing technique under GM law

The European Court of Justice ruled on 25 July that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, in a surprising move that went contrary to the Advocate-General’s non-binding opinion.

In other words, they must pass authorisation procedures worth millions of euros, within the reach of biotech giants but outside the reach of public research.

“These innovative techniques do in less time what natural crossbreeding would do in several steps and more slowly,” concluded Bellanova, calling for Europe to distinguish them from GMOs, as the end result is completely different.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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