Agriculture ministers reject compromise over GM crop regulation reform

The EU Council has rejected a Spanish bid to forge a joint position on a proposed deregulation of genetically modified (GM) crops produced using new genomic techniques (NGTs), with governments voicing concerns over safety, labelling and social acceptance.

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The EU Council has rejected Spain’s latest bid to forge a joint position on the proposed deregulation of genetically modified crops produced using advanced gene editing techniques, with governments voicing concerns over safety, labelling and social acceptance.

The European Commission proposed in July a reform to regulations that, following a 2018 ruling by the EU courts, currently apply the same stringent requirements for risk assessment and traceability to novel genomic techniques (NGT) products as to GMOs created by splicing alien DNA into a plant’s genome.

But several government ministers expressed continued concerns during a summit in Brussels on Monday (11 December) about the extent of the planned deregulation, which would create a largely unregulated ‘category 1’ of GM crops that have only limited tweaks to the genome and which proponents say could arise in nature or through traditional breeding.

France welcomed Spain’s support for excluding all GM crops from organic agriculture, and plants developed for herbicide resistance from category 1, saying the proposal was “very close” to being acceptable.

However, Germany indicated it would abstain in the informal vote that followed the debate, with agriculture minister Cem Özdemir speaking of the need for a “broad social consensus” and consumers’ right to know if a foodstuff is the product of any form of genetic manipulation.

Others, including Poland and neighbours in the EU’s east signalled their opposition to the legislation in its current form. Romanian minister Florin Ionut Barbu listed a number of “non-negotiable” demands, including the complete separation for GM from conventional crops, labelling right up to the end of the food chain, and full risk analysis for each individual GM product, including category 1 plants.

A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Euronews that it had already become clear during a meeting last week of EU permanent representatives that the Spanish compromise was a “no go” for a majority of governments, but that Spain – the only EU country with a significant level of GM crop cultivation – had insisted on putting it on the agenda.

Astrid Österreicher, a policy adviser with German NGO TestBiotech, was encouraged by the impasse in Council. “We think it’s good that no common approach was agreed, given that the tabled compromise does not foresee risk assessment for all NGTs and therefore disregards the precautionary principle,” she told Euronews.

The proposed reform would create two new categories of GM crop, with the first considered equivalent to conventional breeding for regulatory purposes, and the second subject to lighter regulation than currently applies to first generation GMO crops, whose commercial cultivation is restricted in most EU countries under an opt-out that would not apply to the new categories.

An intergovernmental agreement on the new rules is apparently still some way off. “Given the atmosphere in the room, a lot of work still needs to be done,” the source said. A European Council official said Spain may make a last ditch bid to forge a compromise at the diplomatic level before it hands the presidency to Belgium at the end of the month. A spokesperson for the Spanish presidency declined to comment, other than to confirm the rejection of the compromise proposal.