EU meeting: breakthrough for genetic engineering in agriculture?

As of: November 20, 2023 12:09 p.m

To date, there is no clear policy in the EU regarding the use, import and cultivation of genetically modified plants. Brussels wants to change that. Today the agriculture ministers are discussing the Commission’s proposal.

The breakthrough for genetic engineering in agriculture is imminent in Brussels – with safety measures for organic farmers. This is not the first time that the responsible department heads of the member states have bowed to this sensitive issue and a proposal from the EU Commission that is intended to improve security.

So far, the debate has oscillated between great expectations and environmental fears without much movement. But the EU’s decision to extend the use of the pesticide glyphosate despite many concerns also gives the genetic engineering discussion a new direction. The EU member states want to make progress on this issue, especially in difficult economic times and with great competition.

Contradictory Rules in Member States

“Green genetic engineering” refers to the use of genetically modified plants in agriculture and the food sector. In July, the EU Commission had enough of contradictory rules in member states and absurd stopgap solutions for the use of genetic engineering in food and feed.

She had put forward proposals for clear rules: Plants bred using “new genomic techniques” (NGT) should be treated practically equally to conventionally bred plants. This should also make the use of new processes such as the CRISPR/Cas genetic scissors normal in the EU.

The Brussels draft does not want to allow member states to specify distance rules for the cultivation of genetically modified plants in the future. This could make organic farming more expensive and risky for organic farmers.

The agriculture ministers will probably demand improvements from the EU Commission that will ease the burden on organic farming. The EU proposal will only become valid once the EU Parliament and a qualified majority of the member states have approved it.

Many countries for the use of new technologies

Many EU agriculture ministers have long been in favor of broad approval of the new technologies in order to strengthen agriculture in the face of increasing droughts and yield losses due to climate change. Without the breeding of new varieties, there could be a drastic decline in agricultural production in the EU.

Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Estonia, Italy, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Belgium are calling for widespread use of the new technologies. 14 EU states, led by the Netherlands, had already called for reforms in 2019.

Ambiguous role of Germany

Germany has taken on an ambiguous role here. On the one hand, Europe wants to take a pioneering role in research, but on the other hand, there are still concerns about the use of the new technologies. Research with genetically modified plants is already permitted. According to EU law, feed and food containing genetically modified organisms can also be sold.

Nevertheless, Germany is still on the brakes when it comes to a clear political commitment, which the EU Commission is demanding more energetically than before after years of many countries ducking away.

However, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, both Greens, are receiving pressure from organic farmers. They fear the ruin of organic farming and a loss of customer confidence in their products if genetic engineering is used on a massive scale and separation from other products is not possible.

Many supporters also in Germany

For the German Research Society (DFG) and the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, however, approval would have advantages, especially for organic farming: the new technology could make any form of chemical plant protection unnecessary.

The Federal Council also sees a lot of good things in the EU Commission’s draft. The Federal Council neither called for a labeling requirement nor for regionally limited opt-out regulations that would enable member states to impose a ban. Organic producers should also not have to be held liable if their products contain unintentional additions of genetically modified plants.

However, the Federal Council is calling for patents on plants to be waived, as well as distance rules and notification requirements for area neighbors when genetically modified plants are grown. This is intended to ensure the “coexistence of modern breeding techniques with GMO-free agriculture”. The states’ statement was decided in October.

Import allowed, cultivation not

The pressure for reform is enormous. The bad reputation of genetic engineering in agriculture is partly politically self-inflicted, which the supporters of the new technology also admit. It starts with the fact that import approvals for genetically modified agricultural products are completely normal in the EU, but cultivation is not.

Just last month, the EU Commission approved three more genetically modified plants for import without causing an outcry. 97 such plants of this type can now be imported into the EU and further processed for food and feed.

It seems all the stranger that the only approval for the cultivation of a genetically modified plant is 25 years old. There were many applications for new approvals, but they were rejected by many EU states such as Germany and France, but also Italy, or were slowed down by abstentions.

Get out clause should fall

New technologies are often not used because EU countries are allowed to ban their cultivation. Most EU countries have done this, including Germany. The EU Commission is convinced that this exit clause must under no circumstances be reflected in a reform.

Because it is a contradiction that undermines the credibility of EU policy: On the one hand, there are EU approvals and safety assessments that citizens are supposed to trust, and on the other hand, there are national bans. Such contradictions should no longer exist in the future – if the EU agriculture ministers set the course for them.

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