New Breeding Techniques back on the EU discussion table?
Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for discovering the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Manuel Winter takes this event as the occasion to inform you about the latest developments regarding the status of NBTs inside the EU.
Following the ECJ ruling in 2018, classifying products obtained through the use of NBTs as falling “by principle under the GMO Directive”, a number of initiatives taken by the agri-food and biotech sectors at the EU level, including our own NBT Platform, grinded to a halt. Since the decision was taken, however, the European legislative bodies have raised a number of questions regarding the ECJ position and are determined to work around the issue. Even though the discussion is currently taking place under the new term new genomic techniques (NGTs), the uncertainty remains. The new Commission has thus been tasked with producing a study regarding NGTs in the EU legislation and is keeping an open mind about these novel techniques.
The purpose of this study, requested by the Council of the EU, is to answer the questions that were raised following the Court’s decision, concerning how to ensure compliance with the GMO Directive (2001/18/EC) when products obtained by means of new mutagenesis techniques cannot be distinguished, using current methods, from products resulting from natural mutation, and how to ensure, in such a situation, the equal treatment between imported products and products produced within the European Union. This study therefore specifically aims at NGTs based on targeted mutagenesis and how to protect the producers within the single market against unfair competition from imported products. The Council decision requesting the study specifies explicitly that the Commission should submit a proposal, if appropriate in view of the outcomes of the study, or otherwise inform the Council on other measures required as a follow-up to the study.
The study will include a state-of-play on the implementation and enforcement of the GMO legislation, with regards to NGTs, based on contributions from targeted consultations of the Member States and stakeholders as well as work of the European Union Reference Laboratory, together with the European Network of GMO Laboratories, on the detection of products obtained by new mutagenesis techniques.
Further, an overview on the risk assessment of plants developed through new genomic techniques, prepared by the European Food Safety Authority, based on its own previous and ongoing work and on work carried out at national level will also be included. An overview of current and future scientific and technological developments concerning NGTs as well as of new products that are, or are expected to be marketed, prepared by DG Joint Research Centre will be provided. Finally, information on the status and use of new genomic techniques in plants, animals and micro-organisms for agri-food, industrial and pharmaceutical applications will be compiled.
Although the Commission has full discretion on what should be done about NGTs in the EU, it is important to highlight its openness concerning the matter. Indeed, the Deputy Director-General of the Commission’s DG Agri has, in leaked internal documents, backed the use as a potential solution for pest management. Further, Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, has hinted on several occasions that NGTs could be included in the Farm-to-Fork Strategy. In the European Parliament, some MEPs have openly spoken against the ECJ ruling, highlighting the creation of an unfair competitive advantage for large companies over SMEs to implement the GMO legislation. Chair of the AGRI committee Nobert Lins said he was more interested in working to find a way around the Court ruling rather than working out ways to uphold it. Similarly, socialist MEP Paolo de Castro (S&D) stated that the EU court ruling was a “legal drawback” which needs to be solved considering alarming climate change. In conclusion, Commissioner Kyriakides stipulated that no stone will be unturned and that all actors should be brought together to deliver a transformative agri-food system.