May 23. 2024. 7:15

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EU Commission defends proposal on gene-edited plants against French food safety agency

The European Commission vindicated the scientific robustness of the new legislation on new genetic techniques bred-plants at a hearing before the European Parliament’s Environment Committee on Tuesday (9 April), countering the critical remarks of French food agency Anses.

In two opinions published in November 2023 and March 2024, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety openly challenged the main elements of the Commission’s 2023 draft legislation on plants edited with the most recent techniques for modification of DNA, also known as New Genomic Techniques (NGTs).

In the hearing, the Commission defended its proposal.

Klaus Berend from the Commission’s general directorate for health emphasised that the draft law is based on scientific research provided by the EU food safety authority EFSA “since 2012”, as well as on impact analyses on human and animal health, the environment, and economic and social risks,

He also recalled a letter signed by Nobel Prize winners defending the safety of NGTs.

The Commission proposed two categories of NGTs: When the genetic changes are minor (category 1), the plants will be regulated under the rules of conventional plant breeding; in case of more pronounced modifications (category 2), the stricter GMO legislation applies.

The Anses opinions criticised the criteria for categorising the NGTs, suggesting an approach based on a case-by-case risk assessment.

Berend replied that “no risk study is necessary”, citing the work of EFSA and calling for applying “logic”. “When there is the same modification with conventional techniques or with NGTs, NGTs cannot have higher risks,” he stressed.

Holding the point

Anses held its ground. “Anses is not against the mechanism for categorising NGT products, but it is in favour of a solid, applied system with graded assessments, which is not in contradiction with other countries,” explained Matthieu Schuler, its director general.

On the ‘equivalence’ criteria of the NGTs with conventionally bred plants, Schuler reiterated the need for “precise definitions,” including the definition of a conventional plant and techniques compatible with category 1.

The Anses boss also called for a permanent monitoring network to determine potential undesirable effects on plants or wildlife derived from gene-edited plants.

“We expect increased use and therefore increased exposure to NGT products,” which is why the experts are recommending effective post-marketing surveillance, Schuler added.

The Anses counts on other agencies, in particular the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), to ensure that the regulatory framework and selection techniques evolve in a “consistent manner”. According to Schuler, this collaboration “has already begun”.

He suggested creating a “GMO network” to work on these guidelines in the future.

EFSA is expected to issue an own opinion about the first opinion of Anses, following a request from the European Parliament on 22 February.

The debate

The European Parliament approved its position on the draft legislation in plenary session on 7 February, but the Council failed to reach a consensus, postponing a possible final version until the next parliamentary term, after June’s EU elections.

When Anses published its second opinion on 6 March, Le Monde accused the French government of having delayed the release of the study, dated 22 January, to avoid influencing European negotiations on the new NGT rules.

Schuler explained that Anses “published the report eight weeks after signature and transmission to the ministry, this is a usual deadline according to the French law”.

French health agency report challenges proposed EU rules on gene-edited plants

France’s national health and food safety agency published a report on Wednesday (6 March) recommending that gene-edited plants be assessed “on a case-by-case basis”, calling into question a legal text currently being negotiated in the EU institutions.

During the exchange of views, rapporteur Jessica Polfjärd (EPP) defended the European text, highlighting the opinions of German, Dutch, and Belgian agencies, which were more lenient on the European Commission’s proposal.

“The Anses is rather defending a minority position,” echoed Dutch MEP Alexandr Vondra from the conservative right-wing ECR.

French S&D MEP Christophe Clergeau came out in support of Anses, saying that “for the moment, the only science on the table is the opinion of the Anses, which should be taken seriously”.

“This legislation is out of date,” he added, pointing the finger at the equivalence criteria “currently debated” by scientists.

German Green MEP Martin Hausling spoke along the same lines. He supported Anses criticisms and called for “further investigation” and a new “risk assessment” on the legislative proposal.

Belgium’s health authority endorses new gene-editing rules, clashing with French opinion

Belgium’s national health agency has endorsed a European Commission proposal to loosen rules on gene-editing techniques, underscoring its potential to improve sustainability in agriculture in a report published on 21 March.

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