Farming innovation debate heats up as Greens grow in Europe

Another hot potato in the hands of the next EU executive is the new plant breeding techniques. [EPA/OMER MESSINGER]

This article is part of our special report The future of EU agriculture innovation.

The rise of Green parties in the recent EU elections has raised eyebrows in Brussels, where agriculture stakeholders are trying to find out what is next in the debate about the future of EU farming.

The discussion over the need to speed up innovation in agriculture took centre stage during the last European Commission’s mandate.

A number of issues, ranging from pesticide authorisation, like glyphosate, to precision farming and plant breeding innovation, triggered strong reactions among policymakers, the industry and parts of civil society.

Andriukaitis is happy

During his last interview with Brussels journalists, EURACTIV asked EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis his opinion about the rise of green parties across Europe and, particularly, how this could affect innovation in agriculture.

“I’m very happy that we have a new green wave because it can now be found in every political family. If you look at the political programs and manifestos of political parties, including mine, you can see everywhere a green component,” Andriukaitis said.

The EU health chief added that the big question is how these politicians will eventually act: in a fundamentalist way or adopt a science-based approach. “Because if you follow only the ideological part, you can create a lot of problems. We need to rely on science,” he warned.

Andriukaitis has always said science should be the centre of decision-making when it comes to innovation in agriculture and food safety. But in practice, this has not always been the case.

Several studies have shown that EU agriculture’s competitiveness has been shrinking due to a lack of innovation. It is even lagging behind compared to rising markets like China or India.

The Commissioner added that the pressure on the next EU executive would be higher due to the Greens’ empowerment. He said it was a good chance for the implementation of the EU general food law, which is basically related to the authorisation of pesticides, to be transparent. But the European Parliament should also be transparent, he said.

“All my agenda is known, all my contacts with NGOs are known, and I would like to have the same at the EU Parliament level,” he said.

During his mandate, Andriukaitis did not have easy relations with some NGOs and MEPs because of his stance toward glyphosate.

‘Green’ hypocrisy?

Asked about the expectations of the green parties’ rise, Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy adviser, said all political parties need to pitch in to fix the “broken agricultural system and stand up to corporations that benefit from it”.

“The EU’s farming sector has a massive, negative impact on the environment and the climate, whilst failing to provide decent revenues for farmers and farm workers,” she said.

Greenpeace was among the NGOs which firmly opposed the re-authorisation of Monsanto’s glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used weedkiller.

At the EU Parliament level, the opposition was led by Eric Andrieu, an MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D group) and the chief of the PEST committee, who was re-elected in the 2019 EU elections.

However, unlike the glyphosate case, both the green party and environmentalists such as Greenpeace remained silent over another toxic pesticide, according to EFSA: copper.

Achterberg said the EU needs to shift away from all dangerous pesticides, including copper, which is toxic and builds up in soils. “Farmers need support for that transition. So far, very little has happened to achieve that,” she said.

However, critics say Greenpeace “did not campaign” against copper as it extensively did with the glyphosate case, while Andrieu even called on the EU Commission to re-authorise because French organic winemakers did not have an alternative.

EP's pesticides committee chief ‘silent’ over toxic organic agent

The head of the European Parliament’s pesticides committee has warned the European Commission about the possible impact on organic wine-growing if the use of copper, a toxic substance according to EFSA and ECHA, is outlawed.

Greens’ rise is positive

For Dr Ernst van den Ende from the University of Wageningen, the rise of the Greens is not necessarily negative.

“I think that green parties also thrive for better wills. So, they want to have sustainable production and we perfectly align together and with other stakeholders,” he said.

“And if we are open to each other, if we have an open discussion about the tradeoffs of the choices […] I think then you have a very good discussion with each other and you can try to come up with common solutions,” he added.

Similarly, Graeme Taylor, spokesperson for the European Crop Protection Association, hopes that the new Parliament and Commission will take a pause and the opportunity to start a more far-reaching debate on exactly what model of food production we want to see in Europe.

“One that acknowledges the complexity of doing this,” he said.

“We welcome, for example, that the Greens have brought climate change to the top of the agenda: like in any political group there is always a spectrum of views, some understand the role that our industry can play in Europe, and globally, to reduce CO2 emissions, or reduce the use of water or land to produce food, and help address the climate challenge we all face,” Taylor added.

Plant breeding techniques

Another hot potato in the hands of the next EU executive is the new plant breeding techniques.

In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, or gene editing, plant breeding technique are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and 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.

The court ruling sparked intense debate. The industry and farmers said the decision would deal a severe blow to the EU farming sector competitiveness while environmentalists hailed it, saying “hidden GMOs” were prevented from entering Europe through the back door.

But according to Andriukaitis, there was too much manipulation and “scare-mongering” around the issue. The ‘new plant breeding techniques’ need new EU legislation that takes into account the latest advanced technologies, he recently told EURACTIV.

Asked about gene editing and the Greens, Christoph Herrlinger, board member of the company NPZ Germany, said the Greens’ rise reflects the societal debate.

“The topics around our environment, especially in agriculture – and plant breeding being a part of agriculture – and that is if it’s put in the right context not only as a challenge but also an opportunity for our industry,” he said.

“We have to bring across the message to those that have been elected that we as breeders are the ones who can help deliver the answers on these societal needs. There is, of course, a challenge because there might be different views within these parties. We have to strengthen those who see our work as an opportunity in meeting their goals,” he concluded.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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