New Frontiers in Genetic Engineering: A Controversial Shift in Europe Agriculture

news 05-Jul-2023 Europe

New Frontiers in Genetic Engineering: A Controversial Shift in Europe's Agriculture

Old dispute over new genetic engineering

Strict rules from 2001 apply to green genetic engineering, although the methods have evolved since then. The EU Commission now wants to loosen these rules, but critics fear a breach.

The approval from the Belgian Ministry of Health came in early May, just in time for planting. The company Inari in Ghent is allowed to cultivate genetically modified maize on a test field, which has been made shorter and more resistant through genetic engineering. The requirements include a minimum distance of 200 meters from conventional plantings, a high fence, and regular monitoring.

The number of such field trials in the EU is manageable, and in Germany, there have been none for ten years. The EU Commission wants to change that. They consider the strict regulations, which are over 20 years old, to be outdated.

More sustainability through new technologies?

According to the agricultural expert of the European CDU, Norbert Lins, new techniques like CRISPR/Cas are hardly comparable to traditional genetic engineering. The DNA scissors CRISPR/Cas allow precise interventions in the genome, enabling more targeted and faster changes compared to older methods. Lins calls for a "pragmatic approach to new breeding techniques in the context of modern and sustainable agriculture."

The Commission expects the new technologies to bring more sustainability to Europe's fields and farmlands. This is urgently needed to achieve their own goals: Brussels demands a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030.

However, Martin Häusling, the Green Member of the European Parliament and former organic farmer, does not believe in these expectations. He says, "These are all fairy tales. The same was told 20 years ago about traditional genetic engineering. If you look at the US now, since genetic engineering has been on the market, more pesticides are being used."

Brussels wants to avoid dependencies

According to the Commission, the new genetic engineering methods should contribute to food security and increase independence from food imports from other countries. Brussels is concerned that the EU could be technologically, economically, and ecologically left behind, which would weaken the EU's strategic autonomy.

According to the known draft legislation, the Commission proposes to loosen the rules: there should be no authorization, risk assessment, or labeling for genetically modified plants "if these could also occur naturally or be produced through conventional breeding."

More precise attacks

This can be achieved, for example, through mutagenesis, which causes changes without the insertion of genetic material. Or through cis-genetics, where genes are transferred between organisms that can crossbreed, without using foreign genetic material, for example, to make maize more resistant to pests.

The Christian Democrat Lins emphasizes, "Most people see the major danger in the incorporation of foreign organisms. However, the focus should be on plants whose beneficial characteristics could be achieved faster and more accurately with CRISPR/Cas than with traditional methods."

"Will increase the cost of organic farming"

The SPD Member of the European Parliament, Maria Noichl, expressed great concern about the Commission's proposal: "For me, precaution in breeding and green genetic engineering has absolute priority. The precautionary principle must be preserved. I reject any weakening of EU regulations in this regard, as currently proposed by the EU Commission."

The Social Democrat fears problems for the coexistence of conventional and organic agriculture. Modern genetic engineering is also not allowed in organic farming.

According to the Green politician Häusling, this poses particular problems for affected farmers. He says, "Organic farmers need to know what is in the seeds, what their neighbors are planting. If they don't know that, they have to take precautions themselves, and that will significantly increase the cost of organic farming. Establishing control systems, conducting investigations - this clearly goes against organic farming."

Concerns over Patents Arise

Häusling also sees a "huge problem for small breeders and farmers" in the fact that genetically modified plants should be patentable, potentially requiring farmers to pay patent fees.

This criticism is also echoed by the German Farmers' Association, which generally welcomes the Commission's proposal. However, the Association of Peasant Farmers categorically rejects it and fears that it would undermine the precautionary principle.

Germans are Against It

The German government apparently does not have a unified stance on the issue. The Free Democratic Party-led Ministry of Research supports Brussels' initiative, while the Green-led Ministry of Agriculture has not provided a response to inquiries.

On the other hand, the public seems to have a clear opinion. According to a representative survey conducted by the "Lebensmittel ohne Gentechnik" (Food Without Genetic Engineering) association, 58 percent of respondents are against Germany supporting the Commission's plans, while 25 percent are in favor.

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