Natasha Foote – Parliament greenlights plans to loosen EU rules on new GMOs – but with key conditions

The European Parliament has given its blessing to the EU’s plan to loosen rules on new genetic technologies, but added key conditions on labelling requirements and a ban on patents – the latter of which could prove a key sticking point for moving forward with negotiations

Natasha Foote is a freelance journalist, podcaster and moderator specialising in EU agrifood policy

Cross posted from the ARC website

The new genomic techniques (NGTs) – also known as gene editing or new GMOs – describe several scientific methods used to alter genomes and genetically engineer certain traits into plants.

After the file passed its first hurdle back in January, the Parliament’s position was officially sealed in a full-house vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday (7 February), paving the way towards a potential loosening of the rules on the use of the technology in the EU.

Key points to know

Concretely, MEPs backed the idea of splitting plants created with the new technology into two categories with two different approval paths. NGT plants considered equivalent to conventional ones (so-called ‘NGT 1’ plants) would be exempted from the requirements of the EU’s GMO legislation, while category 2 NGT plants would still have to follow stricter requirements.

This is despite reports from multiple national agencies, including the French health agency ANSES and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), in recent weeks concluding that there is no scientific basis for this criteria.

However, the Parliament agreed that there should be mandatory labelling of products from both categories of NGT plants, as well as mandatory traceability and a safeguard clause ensuring the withdrawal of authorisation in the event an issue is discovered – all points considered a silver lining by green groups.

MEPs also agreed that all NGT plants should remain prohibited in organic production, concluding that their compatibility requires further consideration.

Patents – A make or break issue

Despite facing fierce lobbying efforts, MEPs also backed a full ban on patents for all NGT plants and plant material in efforts to “avoid legal uncertainties, increased costs and new dependencies for farmers and breeders,” according to a Parliament press release.

Patents have proven a particularly sticky point for both the Parliament and its fellow lawmakers over in the Council after the Commission chose not to open the pandora’s box of patents in its original proposal.

Ahead of the vote, sources told ARC that if this amendment passed, it could ultimately help spell the end of the file.

This is because the issue remains a major impasse between member states – and, according to one diplomat, a hard red line for the biggest swing vote in the mix, Poland.

With 8% of the vote, a greenlight from the central European country would be enough to win enough support from member states for a general position. This means Poland has been the focal point of efforts in the Council to push the file over the finish line.

However, Poland shows no signs of budging any time soon, according to sources. Meanwhile, one diplomat told ARC that, in the event that both lawmakers agree to include a ban on patents on NGT plants, the Commission has said it will “withdraw the whole file”.

“So we already know that […] the Commission will be fighting against this with all its powers,” the diplomat added.

Mixed bag of reactions

Centre-right MEP Jessica Polfjärd, who led the work on the file, welcomed the outcome of the vote, maintaining the technology is “crucial for strengthen[ing] Europe’s food security and to green our agricultural production”.

While the Greens said they were “not happy with the proposed legislation overall,” they saw the extra protections on patents and labelling as a “big win”. Likewise, Socialist MEP Christophe Clergeau celebrated the fact that the Parliament “rejected any blank cheque” by adopting a text that is a “far cry from the deregulatory intentions of the European Commission”.

However, green campaign group Greenpeace lambasted the result, with Greenpeace GMO campaigner Eva Corral slamming members of the European Parliament for “fail[ing] in their duty to protect people’s health, the environment and the future of European farming”, adding that European farmers will “pay a high price” for this decision.

While bioindustry lobby EuropaBio welcomed the result of the vote, the association warned of “red flags the dangerous fragmentation and weakening of industrial policy with the ban on patenting of NGT plants”.

Meanwhile, the result sparked mixed reactions from the EU’s farming community. Farming associations Copa-Cogeca and the EU young farmers’ association CEJA lauded the result, which they say could help bring much needed support for farmers “in their transition with environmental and societal benefits, as well as advantages for their socio-economic resilience,”.

However, small farmers’ association European Coordination Via Campesina condemned the vote for going against the “rights of farmers and citizens,” maintaining that it shows Parliament “cares more about the demands of multinational seed companies than about the rights of the European population”.

What now?

With the approval of the Parliament’s position, all eyes will now be on their counterparts in the Council to see if they are able to rally enough support to make it to inter-institutional talks before things shift into full election mode.

The outcome of the vote means the Belgian Presidency will now likely redouble efforts on the NGT file, according to a representative for the Presidency, who previously told ARC that it would help spur them on to try their “utmost” to move member states’ positions.

However, they acknowledged that the issue of patents remains a “huge sticking point”.

The file was tabled for discussion at a COREPER meeting on Wednesday in efforts to seek “political guidance” and move things along on the issue, but did not manage to find any common ground, according to a representative for the Presidency.

“We will however continue the work and try to progress this file as far as possible during the current legislative cycle,” the representative said, adding that there is no indication yet for the next discussion at Coreper.

Meanwhile, the chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, Pascal Canfin, has called for another study from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in light of the aforementioned French ANSES study – which calls into question the scientific validity of the two NGT categories – calling for an opinion to be delivered “before the end of July 2024”.

However, it is as yet unclear to what extent the outcome of such a study could change the course on NGTs.

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