EU To Vote On Gene Editing Of Crops, Patent Exception Could Persuade Poland

By Reuters
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EU To Vote On Gene Editing Of Crops, Patent Exception Could Persuade Poland

EU governments on Wednesday (26 April) will vote on new draft rules allowing some crops to be gene-edited to make them more drought- and pest-resistant, as they seek to relax some of the world's strictest regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The strongest champions of so-called new genomic techniques (NGT), which can edit the genetic material of an organism without introducing foreign DNA, include Spain, Portugal and Italy, countries already struggling with the consequences of climate change such as drought.

A heatwave due to spread throughout Europe this week is set to take a heavy toll on summer crops in the southeast.

Exponents of NGT say it effectively accelerates mutations that can occur naturally over time, helping reduce pesticide use and making crops more drought-resistant and nutritious. Critics say it is no different to GMO and could damage fragile ecosystems and affect people's health.

Green Agenda

The vote comes as the European Union faces a backlash from farmers who say its green agenda restricts their ability to compete with producers outside the bloc.


A first attempt to get NGT technology approved failed last year when countries including Poland rejected the measure because of concerns over the patenting of seeds produced using NGT, potentially restricting farmers' access.

However, new draft rules by Belgium that seek to separate NGT technology from regulations covering traditional GMOs also want any patented NGT seeds to still fall under the strictest GMO rules, according to an EU source.

Negotiations are difficult and no agreement is guaranteed despite the changes, EU sources said. Poland's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"If it is approved, it will be a decisive step," said Luis Mira, general secretary of the Confederation of Portuguese Farmers (CAP). "It is a technological evolution and the European Union cannot evolve in terms of agricultural competitiveness if it isolates itself from the rest of the world."


No Legal Framework

The EU parliament supported the technology in February.

If European states agree to back the new rules on Wednesday then the legislation will enter negotiations between the council and parliament before being submitted for a final vote.

"The lack of a legal framework in the EU places European farmers at a disadvantage compared to farmers in third countries, where these techniques are not subject to such restrictive legislation," Portugal's agriculture ministry told Reuters.

The previous text proposed dividing NGT plants into two categories.


European scientists are already developing the technology in the expectation that the EU will ease regulations.

Gene Editing

Agrotecnio, an agrifood research centre in Lleida in northeastern Spain, has used gene editing to develop a variety of rice that is resistant to blast disease.

"It would eliminate the need of any pesticides for this particular disease," said Paul Christou, co-lead of the research. "If you are concerned about sustainability, environmental protection and the like, this is it."

It takes as much as 15 years to develop a new plant variety using conventional breeding. Genome editing will cut the time to a couple of years to generate a variety with the same characteristics as one developed through conventional breeding, Christou said.


Environmental groups have expressed concern.

"They equate it (NGT) with conventional plants, when in fact there is a risk to the environment and to humans," said Helena Moreno, head of agriculture and food systems for Greenpeace Spain. "Mutations can occur in these plants and because there is no traceability, no real risk assessment, it is not possible to check that this does not happen."

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