EU Policy. Parliament backs deregulation of new GMOs amid warning from German watchdog, ongoing patents row

Europe has a long history of opposition to GMO crops, whose cultivation is currently banned in most EU countries.
Europe has a long history of opposition to GMO crops, whose cultivation is currently banned in most EU countries. Copyright Thierry Charlier/AP
By Robert Hodgson
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The European Parliament has narrowly agreed to ease restrictions for crops developed using new genome editing techniques, but a German federal agency warns there is no scientific basis, and EU countries have yet to agree a position amid a row over whether the new class of GMOs should be patentable.

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MEPs have narrowly agreed that a new generation of genetically modified crops should be subject to lighter touch regulation, but a German federal watchdog warned the deregulation proposal ig-nores “plausible risks” from plants that have been tweaked using new genome editing techniques, while EU countries remained deadlocked over whether they should be patentable.

Plant strains developed using ‘new genomic techniques' (NGTs) are already hitting the market in the US, and currently covered in the EU by a GMO Directive dating from 2001, when bioengineers relied on transplanting a whole gene from one species to another to confer new properties such as pesticide resistance or higher yield. New techniques allow scientists to precisely edit the genetic sequence of an organism without inserting alien DNA.

In a vote on Wednesday (7 February), the Strasbourg-based parliament adopted by 307 votes to 263 a report by the centre-right EPP group Swedish lawmaker Jessica Polfjärd on a European Commission proposal for an NGT Regulation that would create a new class of genetically modified plants whose genomes have edited with precisely targeted new lab techniques. These crops would be treated as broadly equivalent to conventionally bred strains.

The EPP and liberal Renew groups voted overwhelmingly in favour while the centre-left Socialist & Democrats were more or less evenly split for and against – meaning the Greens and Left factions failed in an attempt to reject the proposal outright.

The vote finalises the mandate for the parliamentary negotiating team led by Polfjärd to meet government delegates behind closed doors to hammer out a final legislative text. Member states, represented by the EU Council, have yet to agree a joint position after a failed Spanish bid to broker a compromise in December.

The parliamentary position differs from the European Commission’s proposal on the number of point changes to a plant’s genome that can be made before it is bumped up to a category subjected to testing, traceability and labelling requirements similar to those applied to conventional GMO crops – a change intended to ensure plants such as wheat, with more complex genomes, are not automatically pumped into the most heavily regulated category.

“NGTs are crucial to strengthen Europe's food security and to green our agricultural production,” the Swedish MEP said after the vote. “The new rules will allow the development of improved plant varieties that can ensure higher yields, be climate resistant or which require fewer fertilisers and pesticides.”

Likewise, the liberal Renew Europe group’s lead negotiator on the file Jan Huitema spoke of “an-other step to provide farmers with solutions to safeguard the production of safe and high quality food”, arguing NGT plants could help Europe meet its “zero pollution” ambitions.

Euroseeds, a trade association representing plant breeders, welcomed the result of the vote, with secretary general Garlich von Essen calling on the EU Council to “demonstrate its commitment to innovation by aligning with the European Parliament’s decision”.

Green groups were uniformly negative, however, with Greenpeace campaigner Eva Corral repre-sentative saying MEPs had “failed in their duty to protect people’s health, the environment and the future of European farming” and predicting that farmers would “pay a high price, becoming increasingly dependent on a few seed firms”.

Coincidentally bolstering the case for critics of the GMO deregulation process, the vote took place on the same day the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) published a policy briefing calling for the “science based regulation of plants from new genomic techniques”, which followed similar conclusions from France’s food safety agency ANSES.

The approach of treating a category of genetically modified crops as equivalent to conventionally bred plants “lacks a valid scientific basis and violates the precautionary principle, since plausible risks cannot be excluded”, the BfN said in a brief statement accompanying its report.

The organic farming group IFOAM expressed mixed feelings about the parliament’s position, slamming the easing of safety checks for such crops. The group welcomed, however, MEPs’ agreement with its position that all GMOs should be excluded from organic farms, with labelling requirements to make the ban enforceable.

The organic farmers group was doubtful, however, about the parliament’s call for a blanket ban on the patenting of NGT plants, which critics fear could be used by large biotech companies to dominate the market, lock farmers into onerous contracts, or threaten them with legal action should a patented strain take root on their land.

“It is an important declaration of intent, and an acknowledgment of a problem,” IFOAM policy manager Eric Gall told Euronews. He noted, however, that any ban would involve separately amending a 1998 EU directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions. This process in itself could take several years – and even then it would not be binding on the European Patent Office, which is not an EU institution and is governed by a separate international treaty.

As MEPs were voting, divisions between EU countries over whether NGT plans should be patentable or not scuppered an attempt by EU Council presidency holder Belgium to broker an intergovernmental position on the NGT proposal at a meeting of diplomats behind closed doors in Brussels. A source close to the talks told Euronews that governments were divided to an extent that agreement on a negotiating mandate remained elusive.

Discussions around the NGT proposal take place in the shadow of widespread opposition to GMOs from a public that may not appreciate the fine distinction between old and new laboratory techniques. Most EU countries have invoked a clause in the existing GMO Directive that allows them to ban the cultivation of GMO crops on their territory – the present proposal would remove new NGT products from that prohibition.

Belgium hopes to “take the file as far as possible” during its six-months as chair of intergovernmental talks. But the clock is ticking, and every delay increases the likelihood that the final negotiations will not happen until after EU elections in June.

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