Mixed co-op reactions to European Commission proposal on NGT plants

Farming apexes Copa and Cogeca welcomed the move but oppose the use of patents in plant varieties, while retail body Euro Coop wants to keep strict regulation

Co-operatives have responded to the European Commission’s proposal for a regulation on New Genomic Technique (NGT) plants announced on 5 July.

The Commission defines NGTs as techniques to change the genetic material of an organism which have emerged or have been developed since 2001, when the existing Genetically Modified Organisms legislation was adopted.

Under its new proposal two categories of plants obtained by NGTs will be established.

NGT-1 plants will be considered like any other conventional variety and can be released into the environment and used as food and feed or other uses without any ex-ante risk assessment. Plants in this category will include those obtained through cisgenesis and site mutations and leading to results that are supposed to be reachable throughout conventional breeding and/or classic mutation techniques or by natural mutations.

Plants obtained through different techniques or which fail to satisfy the requirements for the NGT-1 category will be treated as NGT-2 plants and regulated through existing GMOs legislation with some changes. The NGT-2 plants will include other kinds of genetic alteration leading to results which are not expected to occur in nature or through natural processes.

Copa and Cogeca, the voice of European farmers and their agri co-ops welcomed the proposal, describing it as “a good starting point for delivering solutions, concerning the inter-institutional negotiation.”

“NGTs (or new plant breeding techniques) are part of the toolbox that enable breeders to speed up their breeding programmes and bring faster and better plant varieties to the market,” the two apexes said, “which must be accessible in all sectors and all regions helping European farmers, who face many challenges including the acceleration of climate change.

“New plant varieties must offer additional benefits compared to existing plant varieties. Knowing that these varieties have been tested and evaluated according to an already established criteria is a form of assurance for farmers. Strengthening the testing of plant varieties regarding sustainability is an improvement as the production level must be maintained to ensure food affordability and security.”

But the proposal will also speed up applications for patents in plants, they added. “By 2026, only so many new patents in plants would be granted, thus blocking others’ access to genetic materials and controlling plants and plant based-products all the way from breeding to end consumers. Copa and Cogeca, however, oppose using patents in plant varieties.”

Meanwhile, Euro Coop, which represents the national organisations of consumer co-operatives in 20 European countries, called on EU legislators to “uphold the strict regulation and avoid any deviations from the current legislative framework for GMОs, thereby ensuring maximum consumer protection and information by maintaining the precautionary principle”.

The apex said its members had in the past “ensured their own brand products as GE (genetically engineered) free and have supported the full regulation of GMOs, with a clear mandatory labelling scheme and a laboratory network to check legal compliance”.

Furthermore, argued Euro Coop, the Commission’s intention to deregulate certain GMOs, as defined by European Court of Justice, lacks a scientific justification. Euro Coop is also concerned about the implications of deregulation for organic farmers whose neighbours use of NGT plants. 

“Although NGT-1 remain banned from organic products, the lack of basic information and ex-post traceability and monitoring makes it quite difficult to apply,” it warned. “Organic farmers will never know whether their neighbours use NGT plants and contamination is quite unavoidable adding technical and administrative burdens to organic food producers.”

The apex also criticised the proposal for lacking “traceability and monitoring”, reducing the freedom of choice of food producers and consumers, increasing “the uncontrolled proliferation of plants and products whose safety is merely conceptual and lacks scientific ground”, and removing the right of member states to ban cultivation on their territory for any NGT plants notified or authorised at EU level. Its full position paper is available here.

“The new rules would reduce the freedom of choice of food producers and consumers and increase the uncontrolled proliferation of plants and products whose safety is merely conceptual and lacks scientific ground; disregarding the techniques, some of which are identical to GMOs, used to create new varieties,” it said.

This article was amended on 9 August to include further information on the plants in the NGT-1 and NGT-2 categories.