Commission event: Can New Genetic Engineering Techniques (NGETs) be sustainable?

The European Commission invited stakeholders, public officials, and politicians for a high-level event to discuss their plans to launch new legislation for ‘New Genomic Techniques’ / New Genetic Engineering Technologies (NGETs). The event was opened by Vice-President Timmermans and Commissioner Kyriakides. IFOAM Organics Europe’s President Jan Plagge was part of the panel discussing whether NGET products can actually deliver on sustainability.

Commission & seed industry favour new legislation
Commission President Frans Timmermans supported the Commission’s communication line, saying new legislation is necessary, but also stressed that a robust fact-based impact assessment is needed.

Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides mentioned that all options are still open, including status quo, but it seems that her Directorate-General (DG SANTE) puts a lot of hope into the sustainability claims of proponents of new genetic engineering techniques.

The EU Member States, most prominently represented by the Slovenian Presidency and French Agriculture Minister Denormandie, welcome plans for new, adapted, EU legislation. They aim to reduce barriers to trade, are concerned about the competitiveness of EU agriculture and see economic potential in these new crops. However, France seems to be open to support a ban on new herbicide-tolerant crops.

Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Herbert Dorfmann (EPP) and the seed industry also support the Commission’s plans to change the regulation.

Civil society & organic sector question if NGETs can deliver
Interesting debates arose between IFOAM Organics Europe’s President Jan Plagge and President of the young farmers (CEJA) and organic wine producer Diana Lenzi. They discussed whether NGETs are needed to develop crops with resistance to certain diseases, and Jan Plagge highlighted that disease-resistant varieties have already been bred for organic systems, but it is often market factors that make it so difficult to introduce them in viticulture (wine production), where consumers have clear preferences regarding varieties.

 Jan Plagge and Dirk Zimmerman (Greenpeace) highlighted that products currently in the pipeline are not delivering on the proclaimed benefits regarding climate & biodiversity, especially with regard to the 2030 timeframe of the Farm-to-Fork strategy to make our food systems sustainable. In general, those in favour of adapted regulation seemed more reluctant to talk about concrete evidence on whether or not NGETs can deliver on sustainability.

Jan Plagge said “The expectations towards new genetic engineering techniques are unrealistic and based on assumptions, and they bring our attention away from the system change that we need to achieve genuine sustainability in the agriculture sector. To make our food systems more sustainable, options need to be compared to other, already available solutions and the effect on existing production needs to be considered.”

Pierre Bascou, Deputy Director-General at Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI,) highlighted that safety is essential and that we must better define the concept of sustainability and integrate it into this policy initiative. Bascou also stressed that integrity of organic production should be preserved and thatthere does not have to be a conflict between agricultural systems.

Sustainability is a systems-based model
As our President, Jan Plagge stressed during the event, it is crucial to move agriculture towards sustainability, but it is a fallacy to reduce sustainability to traits or even specific genes of plants as this is a simplistic approach. A trait does not make a food system sustainable.  Consequently, a sustainability assessment cannot be a free pass for lowering the standards for risk assessment, traceability, and labelling. The question of whether NGETs can be used without jeopardizing organic production is still an open question. It is essential that the Impact Assessmentcovers traceability strategies and coexistence impacts in detail. We need a strong commitment in the EU Commission’s Impact Assessment on this aspect, if that is ever supposed to work.

For more information on new and old GMOs and IFOAM Organics Europe’s work on this issue, please contact [email protected]. IFOAM Organics Europe members can find more information on the member extranet and background materials in the arguments database on the member extranet (main messages, arguments/FAQs, visuals & videos).

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