In July, the EU Commission published a package of measures to ensure a more sustainable use of plants and soil and to strengthen the resilience of food systems. From the EU Commission's point of view, a key component is changes in the use of New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). NGTs should function more specifically, more precisely and more quickly than conventional methods and also improve the climate resilience of plants. A new AK EUROPA Position Paper shows the pitfalls of this proposal.
The EU Commission’s legislative package of the EU Commission from early July 2023 consists of various proposals, including a Directive on Soil Monitoring and Resilience and a Directive on the Reduction of Food Waste. In the proposal on New Genomic Techniques, these methods are touted as true miracle cures. The amendment of the existing regulations is therefore intended to facilitate the cultivation of NGT crops, while ensuring sustainability and reconciling overall economic, social and environmental impacts. All in the name of the European Green Deal and the “From Farm to Fork” strategy, which aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. Crucial impacts on consumers, the (agricultural) economy and the environment are brushed aside. These are elaborated in the current AK EUROPA Position Paper.
Background to the proposal
In July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that New Genomic Techniques such as the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors are genetically modified organisms within the meaning of EU legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMO). In light of this ruling, the Ministers of Agriculture of the EU Member States assigned the EU Commission in November 2019 to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the New Genomic Techniques. As the EU Commission concluded in its Study on the status of NGTs that the existing EU regulations are not suitable for them, it was decided to draft a new legislative proposal. In the course of the legislative process, AK repeatedly raised its concerns regarding the effects on the freedom of choice and safety of consumers, but also regarding the negative effects on the environment, and pointed out the appropriateness of the existing GMO legislation also for New Genomic Techniques. AK therefore clearly rejects the present proposal, as it deviates from the precautionary principle and undermines the information basis of consumers.
From unknown farm to unaware fork
In the current position paper, the EU Commission's plans are being closely scrutinised. First of all, the categorisation of plants developed with the help of New Genomic Techniques is problematic. NGT plants are divided into two categories for which different requirements are to apply: although the proposed categories 1 and 2 are scientifically controversial, in future, plants in category 1 are to be treated like conventionally grown plants. This means that according to the Commission's proposal, these plants and the food they produce do not have to be labelled as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and do not need to be risk assessed. Consumers would no longer have a basis of information to decide whether they want to consume NGT products or not. The possibilities of co-determination through purchasing behaviour would be cancelled out, although according to an AK Survey, 84% of consumers regard freedom from GMOs as an important criterion when buying food. In addition, the precautionary principle of the EU is being circumvented. Although the effects of NGT on ecosystems, biodiversity and food safety are still unclear, they are to be approved without further ado.
Other points are that organic farming, in which Austria, compared to other EU countries, plays a pioneering role, and the GMO-free food industry will come under pressure. Even though the Commission proposal also provides for a ban on the use of NGT plants in organic farming, far too little consideration, however, is given to the requirements of GMO-free organic farming. This increases the barriers for the necessary promotion of organic farming instead of reducing them. The proposal also creates the possibility for a kind of voluntary sustainability labelling for category 2 NGT crops, which could make these products particularly susceptible to greenwashing. In addition, there are simplified permit processes for category 2 NGT products. The question of who receives the patents behind these licenses is also not addressed in the present draft. However, international corporations will have a clear advantage.
Comprehensive changes are required
With its proposal, the EU Commission is obviously doing everything it can to promote the production of products with New Genomic Techniques. However, in order to achieve socio-ecological change and the goals of the Green Deal, comprehensive changes to the EU Commission's proposal are necessary. Instead of undermining consumer choice, NGT food must continue to be safe, traceable and clearly labelled. As the roadmap for political agreement is very tight, awareness of the dangers associated with the proposal must be raised quickly.
EU Commission: Plants obtained by certain new genomic techniques and their food and feed, andamending Regulation
EU Commission: Study on the status of new genomic technique
AK EUROPA Position Paper: Rules for New Genomic Techniques
AK EUROPA: Policy Brief: Genome Editing – How to protect the interests of consumers
AK EUROPA: AK’s expertise in the Committee on the Environment
AK EUROPA: No change of EU gene technology legislation