EU citizens rally against gene editing deregulation ahead of EU proposal
A coalition of organisations, bolstered by green and socialist MEPs, have presented a petition to the European Commission urging it not to loosen rules on gene editing techniques ahead of the EU executive’s upcoming proposal on the matter.
The petition, which was presented to Commission representatives by green groups outside the European Parliament on Tuesday (7 February), was signed by 420,000 EU citizens and demands all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remain ‘regulated and labelled’ – including so-called new genomic techniques (NGTs) – under the current EU GMO directive.
NGTs – or new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) – describe a number of new scientific methods used to alter genomes with the aim of genetically engineering certain traits into plants, such as drought tolerance.
The petition comes ahead of the Commission’s long-awaited proposal on whether to loosen EU rules on new genetic techniques, expected in the second quarter of 2023.
But signatories urge the EU executive to maintain mandatory safety checks, traceability and labelling requirements to all gene edited crops on the market.
According to the organisers, which includes campaign groups SlowFood Europe and Friends of the Earth, excluding NGTs from the law would prevent farmers, food producers, retailers, and citizens from opting for GM-free choices, which is especially important for organic farming.
“We are really concerned about the impacts for the organic sector because they cannot pay for all the tests, for all the cleaning of machines or having good distances to the neighbour field,” said Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
German Green ministers not aligned on EU gene editing deregulation
With the Greens leading both the German agriculture and environment ministries, many expect the country to stand against the Commission’s expected push to deregulate new genomic techniques (NGTs). But agriculture minister Cem Özdemir has so far refused to take sides.
However, in response to the petition, Klaus Berend, the Commission’s head of unit for pesticides and biocides, stressed that “new genomic techniques actually have a potential to deliver something that conventional GMOs until now have not delivered.”
Berend agreed that, apart from herbicide tolerance, “not much has come out of the classical GMO techniques,” but maintained that gene editing carries potential, pointing to ongoing trials in Spain where new varieties produced via NGT techniques have proven more tolerant of heat and drought.
This is not the first time the Commission has hinted that it is in favour of the technology.
Most recently, both a letter to EU lawmakers and a study on food security suggested that the Commission will look to deregulate NGTs to help achieve its climate and environmental goals.
Meanwhile, Berend stressed that “the Commission is committed to supporting organic agriculture” and that the two “are not mutually exclusive.”
“It should be possible to have freedom of choice for those who want or don’t want to use GMOs,” he concluded.
Increase or reduction of pesticides?
But, for green MEP Thomas Waitz, the deregulation “has nothing to do with climate” and is instead a “business opportunity for the pesticide industry.”
Likewise, Eric Andrieu, socialist MEP and a former chair of the pesticides committee, said that the United States, for example, grows different GMOs but this “has not helped at all to address the issue of pesticides, but have rather increased the use of pesticides.”
Campaigning groups also argued that there is currently no evidence to suggest that NGTs will reduce the use of pesticides, as these are still being tested and not on the market yet.
Stressing that, in countries where La Via Campesina is present, the deregulation of GMOs has led to “increased pesticide use, market concentration, higher seed prices, and systemic violation of farmers’ rights,” Ivan Mammana, from the European Coordination Via Campesina, a farming group, warned against “naivety”.
Likewise, food campaign group Slow Food’s policy officer Madeleine Coste, highlighted that the same industry that produces these seeds produces pesticides.
“In their business model, it makes a lot more sense to sow seeds that are herbicide tolerant and then the herbicide that goes with it,” she added.
Conservative MEP Christine Schneider also defended the technology during a panel event on Tuesday on the EU executive’s plans to slash the use and risk of pesticides in half by 2030, saying that “the reduction targets [for pesticides] could be achieved if we allow new plant breeding techniques and promote digital farming.”
Likewise, EU farmers have repeatedly reiterated the need to access cutting-edge developments to help farmers stay ahead of the curve and achieve the EU’s green goals.
“European agriculture needs to access the benefits of innovation to be more sustainable and achieve the ambition as set out in the European Green Deal,” the EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA said in a statement on Wednesday (8 February), adding they are “looking forward” to the Commission’s upcoming proposal on NGTs.
Commission dangles gene-editing to soften pesticide reduction plan blow
The revision of the EU’s pesticide framework should ‘not be seen in isolation’ from other forthcoming initiatives such as the proposal on new genomic techniques (NGTs), according to the Europen Commission.