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GMO reform in doubt after failed bid to break government deadlock

A rice field in Dorno, Italy
A rice field in Dorno, Italy Copyright Luca Bruno/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Luca Bruno/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Robert Hodgson
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Anti-GMO campaigners say the latest failure by governments to agree on lighter controls for gene-edited crops gives time to consider risks and alternatives, but seed producers say the EU risks falling behind in global competition.


Planned reforms of EU regulations on genetically modified crops are now in question after a Belgian bid to forge an inter-governmental agreement on liberalisation for new technologies fell flat yesterday.

The outgoing EU Council presidency holder had sought to assuage the concerns of Poland and others by suggesting tweaks that would limit the ability of biotech firms to patent, and thereby hold a monopoly over, plant strains created using new gene-editing tools.

But Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia all signalled they would oppose even the latest compromise proposal, while Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany would abstain. This prompted Belgium to remove a vote from the agenda of a meeting of diplomats in Brussels today.

Under a weighted voting system used in the Council, a bill requires support from at least 15 member states containing at least 65% of the EU population. The 18 who signalled support for the Belgian compromise represent only 62%.

A diplomatic source confirmed that this effectively closed Belgium’s last possibility to broker an agreement.

Next week the six-month presidency passes to Hungary, whose constitution actually bans the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. With Poland next in line to chair intergovernmental legislative deliberations, the future of the reform is now in considerable doubt, despite the European Parliament having already adopted a pro-reform position.

The New Genomic Techniques (NGT) Regulation tabled by the European Commission last year would carve out a new category of GMOs that would be treated as broadly equivalent to conventionally bred plants, while first-generation products containing foreign genes from other species would remain subject to the strictest regulation.

Opponents of the proposed liberalisation argue that such ‘category 1’ GMOs still have the potential for unpredictable environmental and health impacts, and that the precautionary principle should apply.

Astrid Österreicher of the German NGO TestBiotech, which had written to national delegations ahead of the planned vote urging them to reject the proposal, welcomed the fact that there would be no “rushed agreement”.

Now EU governments would have more time to discuss an alternative proposal from the French regulator ANSES and the broader issues at stake, she said. “This hasn't happened sufficiently up to now,” Österreicher told Euronews.

“For instance there hasn't been any discussion on risk assessment at Council level, which is a shame given the scientific weaknesses of the Commission proposal,” she said.

But Petra Jorasch, head of plant breeding innovation at the trade association Euroseeds, argued it would be a mistake to continue grouping ‘category 1’ products with the first generation of GMOs that the existing EU directive was designed to strictly regulate.

“All plant breeding is genetic modification in a sense, and the new genomic techniques – like conventional breeding – use material from the same species, while ‘classical’ GMOs include genes from another species,” Jorasch told Euronews.

In a separate, Euroseeds expressed disappointment and warned the EU risked losing ground to regions with lighter regulation of new gene editing technologies as current rules “hinder its researchers, breeders, and farmers”.

GMOs have long been viewed with scepticism by the European public, and all but a handful of EU countries have used an opt-out in the current directive that allows them to ban their cultivation nationally. Activists in Italy uprooted on Friday (21 June) night the first field trial of a gene-edited crop, a new rice variety named "RIS8imo" tweaked for resistance to a fungus that causes the disease rice blast.

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