July 15. 2024. 6:40

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EU presidency makes last-ditch attempt to break deadlock on gene-edited crops

After months of stalemate over the rules for innovative biotech crops, EU ambassadors will next week discuss the latest compromise text, seen by Euractiv, with new proposals on patentability.

In 2023, the European Commission proposed loosening the requirements for crops obtained through new genetic engineering techniques (NGTs) to make crops more sustainable and resistant to extreme weather and pests, thereby reducing the use of pesticides.

The Commission proposed to classify the NGT plants into two categories: NGT 1, to be regulated as conventionally bred crops; and NGT 2, to be regulated as GMOs because of a higher number of DNA modifications.

The patentability of NGTs emerged as the most contentious issue in the debate.

While the Commission’s legislative proposal did not tackle the issue, the European Parliament agreed in February to introduce a full ban on patents for all types of NGTs.

With the dossier stuck in the Council, the Belgian presidency is trying to strike a delicate balance on intellectual property rights on NGT plants, as biotech inventions are regulated under a 1998 directive.

All eyes were on Poland, which was part of the blocking minority and had enough weight in votes to change the outcome of the negotiations.

In May, the Belgian presidency already presented member state representatives with a proposal to exempt NGT Category 1 plants from patents.

The latest compromise text, which will be presented to the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) on 26 June, maintains the same line but eases the conditions for applicants to start trials with NGT 1 crops.

A new ‘provisional’ status

The main change in the latest compromise text is the creation of a “provisional” status for NGT 1 plants.

This provisional category is intended to allow those aiming to test NGT 1 crops to start field trials without having to wait for the authorities to verify that the plants are not protected by patents or published patent applications.

However, to qualify for this, a crop must still meet the main requirements for NGT Category 1, namely being equivalent to its conventional counterparts and having no herbicide resistance.

The text says the aim is to avoid “unnecessary burden for requesters and competent authorities”.

According to the plant scientists’ network EU-SAGE database, more than 40 field trials involving genome editing are underway in the EU, the UK, and Switzerland.

Italy, Denmark, Belgium, and Spain are the most active countries in the bloc in this field.

EU sources told Euractiv that member states wishing to speed up the decision-making process fear that the progress on the file risks stalling under the Hungarian presidency, starting on 1 July.

Read more with Euractiv

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