Worrying step to deregulating GMOs: EU Agriculture Commissioner says “no controversy about direction” among EU Agricultural Ministers

The recent Informal meeting of the EU Ministers of Agriculture set a worrying tone for the political agenda regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Under the pretext of climate change adaptation, increasing yield and international economic competitiveness, many ministers encourage the relaxation of rules on new genomic techniques.

Agriculture Ministers, EU institutions and conventional agriculture lobby groups meet…

From 15-16 September, national Ministers of Agriculture and the Special Committee on Agriculture held an Informal Meeting in Prague led by the Czech Presidency of the EU Council. The event was focused on food security and the role of EU agriculture and food in sustainable global food production. The event was also attended by the Commissioner for Agriculture, the General Secretariat of the Council, the Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and other organisations.

… and think less intensive agriculture needs new technologies (read: GMOs)

Already both the preparatory discussion paper and the press release leading up to the informal meeting were concerning. These argued that the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies’ targets, including reduced used of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as more nature land area are all leading to a “de-intensification”. New technologies and practices including new genomic techniques (NGTs) should remedy that.

Agribusiness lobbying groups were also present and, unsurprisingly, pushed for the inclusion of GMOs in the long-term vision of ‘sustainable’ European farming. Copa President Christiane Lambert spoke at the Informal Meeting and said: “We can link productivity with sustainability in producing more with lower environmental impact. We welcome Minister Zdeněk Nekula’s initiative in NGTs, low risk substances & precision farming.”

Agriculture needs a systemic change, not quick fixes!

The embedding of NGTs in a narrative of ‘sustainability’ is an often-used strategy  of interest groups that would like to see NGTs excluded from EU GMO Regulation. However, these speculative arguments  for the ‘sustainability’ claims. Moreover, sustainability in agriculture is much broader than the modification of just one or multiple genetic traits. IFOAM Organics Europe has repeatedly stressed the importance of a systemic approach to sustainability that considers the whole farm organism with a specific focus on the role of healthy soil.

But, quick fixes make big promises to deliver (financially)

Nonetheless, the Agricultural Ministers pushed for easing the current legislative framework on GMOs. The informal meeting’s attendees repeatedly referred to the economic opportunities, innovation and economic competitiveness that NGTs would bring to the EU agricultural market. Support came from various countries, beyond the vocally pro-GMO Czech presidency, including Sweden, Lithuania, Netherlands, Malta, Ireland, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Belgium. However, some ministers also voiced some concerns. Notably, German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir doubted the long-term sustainability of GMOs, while the Cypriot minister Costas Kadis highlighted other possible sustainable approaches, like carbon farming.

The legislative proposal from the European Commission is expected in the second quarter of 2023. EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said that “there is no controversy about the direction”.

New GMOs are also GMOs and should fall under the existing GMO legislation

While the Commission claims to base the proposal on scientific evidence and “solid analysis and with respect to public health, environment and in the economic interest of our farmers”, environmental NGOs and IFOAM Organics Europe are sceptical and appeal to the precautionary principle and continued regulation of GMOs. The current thorough risk assessment, labelling, and traceability requirements are key pillars to ensure food safety, consumer choice, and the livelihoods of organic and non-NGT farmers. In light of an upcoming Commission proposal on how to regulate NGTs, these high standards should be upheld, and the EU should not give way to deregulation.

For more information on new GMOs and IFOAM Organics Europe’s work on this issue, please contact [email protected], Policy Assistant for GMOs and Organic Textiles.

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