October 4, 2023

The agriculture ministers of Germany and Austria oppose the Commission’s plans to deregulate new genetic techniques EU-wide, though whether they can form a united front against Brussels’ proposal to protect their large organic sectors remains to be seen.

Read the original German article here.

New gene editing techniques, with which plants can be genetically modified in a targeted manner and made more resistant to heat or pests, for example, could soon be partially deregulated and treated like conventional plant breeding, a Commission proposal presented last week reads.

Yet EU lawmakers in the European Parliament and ministers in the Council, both of whom still have to vote on the Commission’s proposal, have not yet voiced much opposition to it despite the heated debates it has provoked at the societal level.

In the Parliament, only the Greens have opposed the proposal, speaking out against the deregulation of new genetic technologies.

On the side of the Council, however, agriculture powerhouses France and Spain – which also holds the rotating presidency of the Council – have spoken out in favour of the use of new genetic technologies, while little resistance has so far come from most other countries.

Gene edited food: Greens bemoan Commission’s empty promises

The European Commission’s proposal on new genetic techniques was broadly welcomed by the European Parliament – apart from the Greens, who slammed it for being full of empty promises, going against EU law and being more political than science-based.

Criticism from Berlin and Vienna

However, the German and Austrian agriculture ministers may be inclined to form a front against Brussels’ plans in the Agriculture Council.

“The precautionary principle must continue to be taken into account,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir in a statement.

“Whether the present draft does justice to this must be doubted,” he added.

The proposal should not “lead to introducing bio-patents through the back door,” Özdemir warned. While seeds are currently not patentable, critics fear that large corporations like Bayer could use new genetic technologies to patent breeds and restrict access to seeds.

Criticism also came from Özdemir’s counterpart, Norbert Totschnig of the conservative ÖVP, who, after having remained quiet after the Commission presented its proposal last week, expressed strong criticism when asked by EURACTIV.

“Austria’s agriculture is GMO-free in cultivation, and we want to maintain this pioneering role,” he explained.

The Commission’s proposal “counteracts the Austrian way of agriculture and deprives consumers of their freedom of choice,” he added.

The Commission’s suggestion to treat plants produced with the help of certain new gene editing techniques on an equal footing with conventionally bred plants would also eliminate the obligation to label them as genetically modified organisms, the Austrian minister added.

Critics like Totschnig, therefore, fear that it could become impossible for producers and consumers to choose GMO-free products consciously.

Fear for the organic sector

One of the main concerns of the organic sector is that the proposal could jeopardise the traceability of genetic modifications because the organic label also requires proven GMO-free production.

It is, therefore, probably no coincidence that Germany and Austria, in particular, as countries with a particularly large and traditional organic sector, are sceptical about the relaxation of genetic engineering rules.

“Our agriculture and food sector, whether conventional or organic, must not be endangered in its economic substance,” Özdemir stressed. Effective measures are thus needed to ensure the coexistence between new genetic technologies and organic farming.

“Coexistence with organic production must be guaranteed”, Totschnig added, speaking for a country where organic farming makes up 25% of the arable land – more than in any other EU state.

Austria also produces and exports a lot of conventionally produced but certified GMO-free food – something that the Commission’s proposal could also jeopardise.

Blockade is unlikely

This should also explain why Austria’s conservative ruling ÖVP party is going against the proposed relaxation of gene editing rules currently favoured by the EU political group it is part of – the European People’s Party (EPP).

In the coalition agreement agreed to in 2020, the ÖVP and its junior partner, the Greens, agreed not to approve a new gene editing regulation.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that both countries will block the project outright in the Council as both Totschnig and Özdemir said they favour constructive negotiations to improve the points they criticise.

On the side of Germany, it also appears that Özdemir cannot yet count on the support of the entire government.

While other Green-led ministries and SPD Development Minister Svenja Schulze have spoken out against the Commission’s proposal, the FDP is vociferously in favour of the use of new genetic technologies.

Should the German government disagree on this matter, it would seem like Germany would have to abstain from voting in the Council.

Austria gears up to fight EU Commission’s gene editing proposal

The Commission’s proposal to loosen rules on certain new genetic techniques (NGTs) on Wednesday was strongly condemned by Austrian governing parties, opposition, and environmental organisations who fear it could threaten the country’s large organics sector.

Austria could be among the only …

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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