EU environmental ministers give clear signal to Commission to maintain precautionary principle & risk assessment for NGTs

On 16 March, the Council meeting of environmental ministers sent a decisive message to the European Commission as a large majority of ministries that took a stance on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) sided with the concerns of environmental and organic NGOs.

The topic of NGTs was taken up in the agenda of the Council meeting on the basis of a public note from the Austrian environmental ministry that demanded strict authorisation rules for new GMOs and comprehensive provisions on science-based environmental risk assessment, rather than basing the proposal on unfounded assumptions. Furthermore, the Austrian environmental minister Leonore Gewessler insisted on the need for consumer labelling, saying “NGTs through the backdoor are not acceptable for us. Consumers have the right to know what ends up on their plates”. In her speech, Gewessler also proposed the creation of an ad hoc working group in the Council to enable a comprehensive discussion on new GMOs including the environment, health, and agriculture sectors.

The Austrian government was supported by other member states as well. German environmental minister Steffi Lemke highlighted the need for social acceptance of NGTs, while also upholding the precautionary principle, freedom of choice and the co-existence of different agricultural systems. The Hungarian delegation even questioned the targeted survey from 2022 that was mainly based on expectations and assumptions, mirroring the critique of various national and EU civil society organisations that assessed the survey as “fundamentally flawed” in a letter to the Commission in October 2022.

The minister of Cyprus stated: “The provisions of the proposal should be the same as those applicable to all GMOs”, thus calling for a continued strict regulation of NGTs. The Luxembourgish and Slovakian representative supported the Austrian’s call for comprehensive risk assessment.

The discussion in the Council meeting comes at a crucial time where the European Commission is gearing up to draft the impact assessment and legislative proposal, which is set to be presented in June, together with three other pieces of legislation in the cadre of the legislative package called “Sustainable agri-food systems and use of resources”. The deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including those derived from NGTs, is an environmental and biosafety issue, so the positioning of national environmental ministers was essential to enable a more far-reaching debate beyond the agricultural and food safety discourse.

In the upcoming political talks, it is important to take into consideration a variety of viewpoints as the legislation on new GMOs will impact many sectors and areas, from the environment to agriculture, but also consumer rights, and patents. This Council meeting was an important step towards the interdisciplinary, critical discussion needed to treat such a sensitive topic.

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