July 15. 2024. 6:49

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EU’s food watchdog dismisses concerns over gene-edited food proposal amid Council deadlock

The EU’s food safety authority (EFSA) said that the Commission’s criteria to relax rules on certain gene-edited foods are ‘scientifically justified’, while the Hungarian Council Presidency is pulling the brakes on the file.

Following a request of the European Parliament, EFSA published on Wednesday (10 July), an assessment of a 2023 opinion by the French food safety agency (ANSES) that questioned the Commission’s criteria to split crops produced using New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) into two categories, one of the founding elements in the proposal.

Under the Commission’s proposal, plants falling under the NGT 1 category would be exempt from the EU’s strict requirements on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), including mandatory labelling and a lengthy authorisation process. Those with more far-reaching DNA modifications, labelled as NGT 2, would continue to follow GMO regulations.

The French agency raised concerns on this point, saying that the criteria used to consider NGT 1 crops as equivalent to their conventional counterparts had “no scientific basis”.

EFSA, however, concluded that the Commission’s standards – largely based on the number of genetic modifications in the crop – are “scientifically justified”.

“Plants containing the types and numbers of genetic modifications used as criteria to identify category 1 NGT plants in the European Commission proposal do exist as the result of spontaneous mutations,” reads the opinion.

In the assessment, EFSA reiterated that it “did not identify any additional hazards and risks,” associated with the use of NGTs compared to conventional plant breeding.

While the European Parliament reached its position on gene-edited in February, the file has been stuck at Council since December, when a blocking minority of EU countries rejected a compromise text presented by the Spanish Council Presidency.

EU split on deregulating gene-edited food as Council deadlock persists

Despite recent efforts by EU governments to ease rules new genomic techniques (NGTs) for food crops, these novel methods continue to face resistance from politicians and society.

EU countries back to square one

After a last-ditch attempt by the Belgian Council presidency to break the deadlock with a new proposal, addressing concerns over the patentability of NGTs, Hungary – which took over the presidency in July – is planning to restart discussions on the file on 19 July.

According to a note circulated to the national delegations on 3 July, and seen by Euractiv, Budapest wants to go back to the heart of the proposal, including aspects of the legislation on which the previous Spanish and Belgian presidencies already found a compromise, such as the equivalence between NGT 1 and conventional crops.

Contrary to EFSA’s opinion, the Hungarian presidency note says the criteria proposed by the Commission, “might not be sufficient for establishing similarity,” between NGT 1 and crops bred using traditional methods.

Budapest is inviting EU countries to propose an alternative criteria for NGT 1 crops and to consider subjecting them to a “simplified risk assessment.”

A diplomatic source told Euractiv that the note is “in many ways a step backwards” and leaves “little possibilities” for progress on the file.

Another source close to the negotiations said Budapest’s move was unlikely to “open any new doors,” to break the stalemate in the Council.

Other ‘unresolved’ questions

The Hungarian presidency is reopening the debate also on other aspects, such as labelling requirements and the co-existence of NGT crops with organic farming.

Budapest says several EU countries want mandatory labelling rules for NGT 1 – limited to seeds in the Commission’s proposal – to be extended to food and other products “to ensure transparency along the entire production chain.”

Meanwhile, the Hungarians argue that separating gene-edited crops from organic production may prove difficult.

“Although the intention of the proposal was to create the possibility for the organic sector to exclude category 1 NGTs from their production, its practical implementation raises serious concerns,” reads the circulated Hungarian note to member states.

Read more with Euractiv

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