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Commission dangles gene-editing to soften pesticide reduction plan blow

A letter addressed to MEPs seen by EURACTIV suggests that the Commission hopes to appease critics of the revision of the EU’s pesticide framework by dangling a potential liberalisation of new genomic techniques (NGTs).

EU food safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides explicitly referred to the highly contentious gene editing in a reply – seen by EURACTIV – to a previous letter from the chair of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (AGRI), Norbert Lins, who criticised the revamped Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) proposal presented in June.

While the EU executive already carried out an impact assessment of its sustainable use of pesticides regulation (SUR) proposal before Russia invaded Ukraine, European lawmakers and member states stressed the need for a deeper look at its impact in light of the shockwaves the war sent through the global food chain.

To appease critics of its proposal – aim to halve the use and the risk of chemical pesticides by 2030 – Kyriakides highlighted that other parts of the EU’s food flagship policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, could help boost food security.

“I should also like to underline that the SUR proposal is not an isolated measure,” said Kyriakides in the letter obtained by EURACTIV.

She mentioned, in particular, the already adopted rules to speed up the approval of biologically active substances for pesticides, innovation funding on crop protection included in the EU’s research programme Horizon and a proposal on NGTs the Commission is set to table next year.

The latter initiative addresses whether organisms treated through so-called new genomic techniques (NGTs) should be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and thus be subject to the restrictions set out in the EU’s GMO Directive.

In a study published last year, the Commission concluded that this current legal framework is insufficient for NGTs and new policy instruments should be considered to reap the benefits of this technology – a conclusion that has campaigners worried that the upcoming proposal could contain a far-reaching deregulation of genomic techniques.

Such deregulation of new genomic techniques is supported by some of the staunchest critics of the pesticide reduction proposal, including the centre-right in the Parliament, the European People’s Party group (EPP).

Critic reactions from MEPs

Reactions to the letter were mixed but critical toward the Commissioner.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Green MEP Tilly Metz commented that Kyriakides’s reply “contains part of the very nonsense narrative which is threatening the implementation of the Green Deal.”

The Luxembourg lawmaker fears that mentioning NGTs in the letter could mean the upcoming deregulation of these technologies linked to the SUR proposal.

“Is it a desperate attempt to make the SUR proposal more palatable for conservative and liberal forces in the Parliament’s AGRI committee? Or does the Commission genuinely believe the fairy tale of gene editing is the key to a future without pesticides?” she wondered.

Italian MEP Herbert Dorfmann – the agriculture coordinator of the EPP – was not impressed by the reply either

Both mentions of NGTs and research funds seem to him more like ‘an excuse’ by the Commissioner. “There is a clear request from the member states for a better impact assessment, also taking into account the current situation on the markets and security of supply or food security,” he said.

According to Dorfmann, it is time for the Commission to make it clear that this proposal does not have a majority either in the EU Council or in Parliament.

As such, he expects the EU executive to “abandon this purely ideological line in favour of a real package that also offers farmers a chance to actually reduce the use of plant protection products.”

Food security is considered

“We fully acknowledge the concerns which the SUR proposal has generated,” Kyrikides wrote. This includes, among other things, the targets themselves to halve pesticide use and risk by 2023 and the potential prohibition of all pesticide use in sensitive areas.

While the Commissioner ascertained that “the impact of the pandemic on the proposed Regulation has been specifically considered” in the impact assessment the Commission already carried out while preparing its proposal, she admitted that “Russia’s war against Ukraine and the most recent economic developments influencing also inflation have indeed exacerbated food security concerns.”

To counteract the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU executive has already “taken, and it continues to take, actions on food security,” she added.

According to Kyriakides, however, this is not an argument against but in favour of reducing pesticides, as she also acknowledged that “the effects of drought and climate change on agricultural production are very important issues.”

[Edited by Natasha Foote/Alice Taylor]

Source: Eura Ctiv

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