New plant breeding techniques: EU Commission finds GMO legislation not fit for purpose

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Martin Barraud
© GettyImages/Martin Barraud

Related tags: gmo legislation, pesticides, EU Green Deal

A European Commission study finds that the current GMO legislation, adopted in 2001, is not fit for purpose in terms of new techniques that alter the genome of an organism.

The publication​, which assessed the new genomic techniques (NGTs), was released today; it sees that products made using NGTs have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system as part of the objectives of the EU Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

The findings of the study suggest NGTs could make plants more resistant to diseases, environmental conditions, and climate change effects. It sees that such techniques can improve, for example, the nutritional profile of crops, boosting fatty acid content, or enabling reduced need for agricultural inputs such as pesticides.

At the same time, the review also analyzed concerns associated with NGT products and their current and future applications, including the possible safety and environmental impact, for example, on biodiversity, the coexistence with organic and GM-free agriculture, as well as labelling.

The Commission’s study also highlighted that NGTs are a very diverse set of techniques and can achieve different results, with some plant products produced by NGTs being as safe as conventionally bred plants for human and animal health and for the environment.

The EU executive is now starting a wide and open consultation process to discuss the design of a new legal framework for these biotechnologies.

Background

The Council of the European Union, in November 2019, asked the Commission to carry out a study in light of EU Court of Justice's controversial ruling on the status of novel genomic techniques.

The Commission said the review was informed by expert opinions and contributions from member states' competent authorities and EU-level stakeholders via targeted consultations: “A wide range of participants was involved in the consultation, which preceded the preparation of the report. All contributions are published.”

Reaction

“This study reverses the ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ​and takes a factual and science-based approach on the issue, which the previous ruling was clearly lacking.

“For the European Commission, these new techniques have the potential to contribute to a more sustainable food system with more resistant breeds to disease and climate change while ensuring affordable solutions for farmers and consumers.

“The Commission also recognizes that these new techniques cannot be considered under the same 20-year-old framework set for GMOs,”​ said the EU farm lobby, Copa and Cogeca, reacting to the publication.

FEFAC said it supports the use of NGTs as tools EU farmers can leverage to boost protein crop production and, thus, increase European self-sufficiency. The trade group is willing to participate in the upcoming debate on a new legal framework, and has much to contribute in that regard considering the technical expertise it brings to the table, a spokesperson told us.

Fediol, the EU vegetable oil and protein meal industry association, said the review made it quite clear that NGTs bring benefits but that the EU legal framework requires adaptation to support their implementation in EU farming systems.

However, unsurprisingly, the EU organic movement has raised a red flag over the findings of the Commission's study.

IFOAM Organics Europe said it is calling on agriculture and environment ministers as well as the EU Commission to safeguard the capability of producers and farmers to produce without GMOs and allow consumers to choose what they eat. It said the existing regulation is fit to achieve these goals.

Jan Plagge, president of that group, commented: “A weakening of the rules on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food is worrying news and could leave organic food systems unprotected – including their ability to trace GMOs throughout the food chain to avoid contaminations that lead to economic losses and to live up to organic quality standards and consumer expectations. Organic producers urge the Commission and Member States to maintain the existing regulatory framework and seriously consider the impact of the proposed regulatory scenario on organic food and farming, consumer choice and access to agrobiodiversity.”

Next Steps

The study will be discussed with EU ministers at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in May.

In the coming months, the Commission said an impact assessment, including a public consultation, will be carried out to explore policy options concerning the regulation of plants derived from certain NGTs.

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