MEP: EU must encourage ‘responsible’ use of new genetic techniques

The EU must work towards regulation that enables the responsible use of new genomic techniques (NGTs) to innovate the farming sector while remaining centred around the precautionary principle, according to centre-right MEP Norbert Lins.

The comments come as the Commission’s service for food safety DG SANTE is putting its finishing touches on its long-awaited proposal on whether to loosen EU rules on the NGTs, expected in July.

Gene editing describes several new scientific methods to alter genomes to genetically engineer certain traits into plants, such as drought tolerance and pest resistance.

For the lawmaker, who is also chair of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, the EU “need[s] a regulation that enables the responsible use of new breeding techniques for urgently needed innovations in plant breeding”.

He said that breeding pressure “remains high”, stressing that new varieties are needed to deliver stable yields and conserve natural resources like water and nutrients.

However, this responsible approach must remain rooted in the precautionary principle, which “tak[es] into account the potential risk to humans, animals, plants, and the environment”.

The precautionary principle is an approach to risk management where, if it is possible that a given policy or action might cause harm to the public or the environment and if there is still no scientific agreement on the issue, the procedure or action in question should not be carried out.

No unnecessary restrictions

However, at the same time, the legislative proposal should be designed so that it “does not impose any unnecessary restrictions on agriculture,” Lins, who has long been a vocal advocate of the technology, said.

“That is what I expect from the Commission’s legislative proposal. We in Parliament will decide on the ways and means as soon as the legislative proposal is available,” he said. 

This is because, according to Lins, the EU must embrace all potential tools in the toolbox to help future-proof the farming sector against climate change.

A recent project initiated in 2020 and carried out by the German Federation of Plant Innovation is trying to provide real-world evidence that this new technology can actually bring benefits for both farmers by reducing their costs and for the environment by reducing the use of plant protection products.

The project is the first collaborative one dealing with NGTs in Europe as it brings together roughly 60 mostly medium-sized plant breeding companies, and it aims to develop wheat plants enhanced with tolerances against fungi.

We should be open to all kinds of technologies that help us face the challenges that lie ahead of us,” Lins said, adding that new breeding techniques can be “one tool to reduce pesticide use, ensure food security, and help to adapt to climate change”.

The compatibility question

On one side, DG SANTE is in favour of loosening the rules around gene editing, but on the other side, the Commission’s agricultural service DG AGRI believes that several question marks remain over the proposal, one of which is the compatibility of the technology with the organic sector.

While the majority of the organic sector remains opposed to the use of this technology, Lins pointed out that there are “also voices in the organic sector that claim that new breeding techniques could be a solution for the challenges they are facing,” noting these are, too a large extent, the “same as in conventional farming”.

According to Lins, these voices are right”,  but he maintained that he has “always been a strong advocate” for the coexistence of organic and conventional farming. 

As such, the MEP said that the development of NGTs must be accompanied by a simultaneous promotion of biological safety research and research into reliable detection methods for new breeding techniques.

“Of course, we have to keep an open eye on all possible consequences and should not neglect possible negative effects,” he said.

Meanwhile, the MEP also stressed the need for a “broad societal dialogue process”.

“We have to have a public debate that takes into account the public concerns but shows at the same time the possibilities of these new techniques,” he concluded.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]


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