European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans added his voice to the growing list of those in the EU executive advocating for gene editing, a move condemned by campaigners who accuse the Commission of already making their mind up on the technology.
The Modern Biotechnologies in Agriculture high-level event, which took place on Monday (29 November), provided a forum for a “transparent and constructive” debate on how the EU could develop a regulatory framework on plants obtained through new genomic techniques (NGTs).
“Preliminary work has already revealed that plants obtained from new genomic techniques have the potential to contribute to the objectives of a more resilient and sustainable agri-food production,” Timmermans said, pointing to examples such as increased resistance of plants to pests, diseases and environmental conditions or the effects of climate change such as droughts.
“This is very promising,” he said, adding that this should be done in a way that cuts no corners on safety and should also be used in parallel with all other efforts to improve farming sustainability practices.
Referencing the sustainability ambitions as outlined in the EU’s flagship food and farming policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, Timmermans said that work on NGTs will “clearly be part of those actions”.
He called the event a “milestone” in the dialogue on the technology, adding that the EU should “properly explore their potential in developing sustainable products”.
Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides also put her weight behind the controversial biotechnology. She emphasised that NGTs are part of the innovation that can help “further our aims under the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy.”
“We all share a commitment to make our food system more sustainable. We are aware of how challenging this will be. All tools that contribute to this transition in a fair, sustainable and safe way must be explored,” she added.
Kyriakides also noted that it is “our responsibility is to create the conditions for developing products that can bring such sustainable benefits for our Union and beyond”.
A controversial topic
The issue of gene editing in EU agriculture has taken centre stage since the 2018 European Court of Justice ruled that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding techniques are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
The ruling, widely welcomed by civil society but strongly contested by the biotechnology industry, led to the Commission requesting a study to offer “legal clarity” as to the status of new gene-editing techniques.
The eagerly-awaited study, published in April of this year, 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.
This Commission is currently reviewing the EU’s rules on technology, recently launching a public consultation on the matter, which is designed to feed into this review.
Already a done deal?
This is not the first time that the Commission has voiced favourable opinions of the technology, sparking criticism from civil society that the outcome of the discussion is already a foregone conclusion.
Accusing the Commission of already “giving in” to the biotech lobby, Friends of the Earth Europe warned that the Commission is “paving the way for the deregulation of a new wave of GMOs” despite mounting concerns.
Most recently, more than 69,000 citizens voiced their opposition to the deregulation of the technology in the public consultation on the matter, demanding the EU apply existing GMO safety and labelling laws.
Meanwhile, ministers from Austria, Germany, Hungary and Luxembourg have been calling for clear safety checks, labelling, and the precautionary principle to be applied to new gene-editing technologies, the group points out.
Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said that the Commission’s plans “look like a wish list from the biotech industry”.
“Decision-makers must not fall for it and need to put a stop to these attempts to allow new GMOs onto our fields and into our plates without safety checks and labelling,” he urged.
Asked if the Commission had already decided to deregulate NGTs, Kyriakides said this was a “clear loud no”.
“Launching policy action does not mean we have taken the decision to deregulate,” she said, adding all options will be examined, including maintaining the current situation.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/ Alice Taylor]