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Eleventh-hour push for deal on ‘radical’ GMO deregulation

A protest in Brussels, 2008. Although licenced under EU law, public sentiment has led most member states to ban GM crops.
A protest in Brussels, 2008. Although licenced under EU law, public sentiment has led most member states to ban GM crops. Copyright Thierry Charlier/AP2008
Copyright Thierry Charlier/AP2008
By Robert Hodgson
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Belgium is determined to clinch a deal on new GMO rules in the last days of its EU Council presidency, but green groups are urging governments to change course.


Belgium hopes to secure this week an inter-governmental agreement on new rules for genetically modified (GM) crops, while green groups and scientists have warned that proposals under discussion amount to a dangerous liberalisation.

The development of precise new genome editing techniques (NGTs) in the 20 years since the current GMO Directive took effect prompted the European Commission to propose last year a regulatory overhaul that treats a newly defined ‘category ’ GM plants as broadly equivalent to conventional crops.

Diplomats are set to convene tomorrow (26 June) to discuss a compromise proposal aimed at overcoming misgivings among some member states, notably Poland, over allowing biotech firms to patent such plants and enjoy a market monopoly to the detriment of farmers.

The Belgian proposal, seen by Euronews, would mean that only new genetic modification techniques (processes) could be patented – not their products, the plants themselves. It also retains an earlier amendment that would ban the patenting of any plants designed for herbicide resistance.

But that might not be enough to prevent effective monopolies on new crop strains, campaigners have warned.

Without changes to EU patent law, companies could “still…claim biological resources as their monopoly, even if the claims on NGT plants would be withdrawn”, according to the GMO watchdog TestBiotech, which has been following the process closely and wrote to national delegations ahead of the key Wednesday meeting.

The German NGO is one of 17 environmental and organic farming groups that called on EU member states to reject the NGT Regulation and instead discuss a proposal from the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), where all GM plants would be remain subject to the existing GMO Directive.

Under the ANSES proposal, the Directive would be amended so that “a step-by-step risk assessment can be used to actually speed up decision-making”, the NGOS argue, addressing a key criticism of the existing rules.

According to Testbiotech, the proposal tabled by the Belgian government would mean “an even more radical deregulation of NGT plants” than that tabled by the EU executive. “It would drastically expand the number of genetic alterations allowed in NGT plants without requiring risk assessment,” it said.

Belgium is set to hand over the rotating EU Council presidency to Hungary next month. If diplomats agree a joint position on the proposal, it will still need to be signed off by ministers, and final talks with the European Parliament – which finalised its negotiation mandate in April – would likely begin in the autumn.

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