US agriculture chief urges EU to listen to science, not fear-mongering NGOs

Speaking to a group of journalists in Brussels, including EURACTIV.com, Perdue said EU policymakers are not naïve about the challenges in agriculture. [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report Innovation, CAP and Green Deal: A tough equation?.

When it comes to food, EU policymakers should make science-based decisions if they want to help European their farmers tackle the “legitimate concerns” over sustainability, Sonny Perdue, the US State Secretary of Agriculture, said on Monday (27 January).

Speaking to a group of journalists in Brussels, including EURACTIV.com, Perdue said EU policymakers are not naïve about the challenges in agriculture. Earlier on Monday, he met with EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, as well as EU health chief Stella Kyriakides and Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan.

Asked by EURACTIV if EU policymakers are willing to open up the discussion on biotechnology in agriculture, Perdue said:

“Any time you have people who are elected, you have to listen to public opinion but I think they also respond, understand their responsibility as leaders. We have to make policy decisions based on sound science when it comes to food. And so I think they’re willing to do that.”

He said there was “some anxiety regarding the ability to, to counteract some of the NGOs who are out here spreading fear regarding hazard-based rather than risk-based approach”.

“I use the example of table salt that can be hazardous if you consume it in too much quantity, but we use it regularly. And that’s why we have the MRL (maximum residue level) for pesticides […] there’s got to be a level that is safe, not something that if you just got down table salt with every meal, that you’re going to be ill,” he said.

Commenting on the ongoing talks on the EU’s next Common Agricultural Policy after 2020, Perdue expressed concern that it is not going in the right direction.

“I think farmers have a legitimate concern. Farmers don’t want to be welfare recipients. I’m concerned [the EU] is moving toward a welfare state in the Common Agricultural Policy, trying to compensate for what they will not allow farmers to do like they know how to do,” the US official added.

The issue of biotechnology in EU agriculture has caused headaches across Europe especially following the 2018 European Court decision that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

The decision surprised the industry and farmers, who said they were being deprived of necessary tools that would help them address environmental concerns and manage to compete with other farmers across the world.

On the other hand, NGOs hailed the decision, saying that the Court had prevented “new GMOs” from entering the EU market through the back door.

The European Commission is currently conducting a study to explore options to update the existing GM legislation or create a new framework for these innovative techniques.

EU should communicate clearly to the public

Perdue strongly defended the use of plant breeding techniques, such as CRISPR [DNA sequencing], saying it’s a non-transgenic genic breeding technique. “It’s essentially a natural breeding technique that’s just expedited.”

“We have a responsibility to communicate that to the public: that these are not weird Frankenstein type of genes,” the American politician said.

“We know that we can expedite that through genetic engineering of similar results, manipulating that DNA to get a better product more efficient, or effective, healthier, safer. In that way, we have to communicate that and Europe has to communicate that to the public,” Perdue said and added that the EU Parliament should also be aware of the advantages of these techniques.

“I think work has to be done within the European Commission to resolve that issue in that way. Because we think that it’s a tool that European farmers can use. It is safe and it’s efficient, and it’s healthy, and it’s affordable,” he said.

Perdue insisted that decisions on food should be based on science and the European public opinion needs to understand that if they choose to have a technology-free zone, their producers are going to be at a huge disadvantage, not just versus the United States, but vis-à-vis the world including the growing technology in Asia.

“We want environmental sustainability, we want social sustainability, but there also must be economic sustainability. If you do not have economic sustainability and agricultural sector, you will not have environmental or social sustainability,” he concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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