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EPP faces pushback on gene-editing liberalisation proposal

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Left-wing parties in the European Parliament have criticised a proposal by centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) lawmaker Jessica Polfjärd to loosen rules on new genomic techniques (NGTs) even more than the Commission originally aimed for.

During a debate in the European Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) on Tuesday (7 November), lawmakers debated the draft report tabled recently by Polfjärd, the parliament’s lead negotiator on the NGT file.

The Commission proposed to loosen the rules on certain NGTs, or gene editing –  a number of new scientific methods used to alter genomes with the aim of genetically engineering certain traits into plants.

While the proposal has stirred passionate criticism from the Greens and other left-wing lawmakers, who think it goes too far in deregulating gene-edited plants, Polfjärd’s draft not only welcomes large parts of the Commission’s stance, but also proposes to go further in liberalising certain aspects.

These tweaks proposed by the centre-right lawmaker concern some of the most controversial points of the legislation, notably the labelling of NGTs and their coexistence with organic farming. 

The principles of organic farming, at stake?

Specifically, Polfjärd proposes that NGT-based plants should be allowed in not just conventional, but also organic, farming – something the Commission proposal had ruled out.

The relationship between gene-editing and organic farming is fraught with contention: While many organic farmers worry that a deregulation of NGT rules could mean they are no longer able to ensure their production is free of gene-editing, others – such as Polfjärd – think the problem should be solved by simply allowing NGTs even in organic farming.

The rapporteur wants to ensure “a fair playing field” where “any operators without discrimination can use the techniques”, reads the draft. 

However, this push did not go down well with lawmakers from several other party groups.

“The rapporteur has not understood the basic principles of organic farmers,” said the Left MEP Anja Hazekamp.

Others raised concerns about cross-contamination, that is, the worry that NGT-based products from neighbouring farms could ‘contaminate’ organic farmers’ produce. “How do you know what your neighbouring farmer is growing?” asked Green MEP Martin Häusling. 

Socialist MEP Christophe Clergeau warned that NGTs in organic crops could mean “a loss of image [and] value” and a “major impact” on traditional farming practices. 

Nothing to hide

Another point of contention was Polfjärd’s proposal to reduce labelling requirements for NGTs further than foreseen by the Commission.

According to the Commission’s proposal, NGT-based plants that are indistinguishable from ones obtained by conventional breeding (category 1) should be treated like their conventional counterparts, while ones with more ‘complex modifications’ (category 2) would be subject to stricter requirements.

Both types of plants, however, should remain subject to certain labelling and traceability requirements.

This is where Polfjärd’s report diverges, arguing that conventional-like, category 1 plants should not have to be labelled and traced as this would be “discriminatory”.

“Conventional-like plants should be treated conventionally,” said MEP Radan Kanev, speaking on behalf of Polfjärd. “This extra requirement is creating an unjustified distinction and undue administrative burden,” he added.

The Greens, on the other hand, called the move “naïve” and “arrogant”, and the Left accused the rapporteur of hindering “transparency and traceability”. 

Meanwhile, Renew MEP Martin Hojsik also argued there is no problem with labelling NGT-based plants. “If you believe [NGTs] are good”, he argued, there is “no reason why anyone [would] want to hide [them]”. 

Hojsik also said the question of patents was a “crucial missing piece” in the debate. “We don’t want to have patents on plant varieties,” added MEP Jan Huitema, of the same party. 

The Commission’s proposal did not include intellectual property (IP) rights, which could mean that NGTs would be patented under GMO rules.

[Edited by Julia Dahm/Nathalie Weatherald]

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