Co-hosted by S&D MEPs Maria Noichl and Christophe Clergeau, the event was a key opportunity for business operators in the food sector to bring forward their point of view - and that of European consumers – to the law makers in the European Parliament, who are currently scrutinising and should go on to agree on amendments to the European Commission’s proposal for a legislation on NGTs.
In his welcome video message, Christophe Clergeau MEP, S&D shadow rapporteur in the ENVI committee, was critical of the European Commission's proposal for legislation on NGTs. He specifically called for: traceability and labelling of NGTs in order to inform and give consumers freedom of choice over what they buy and eat; protection for the organic and Non-GMO farming sectors; co-existence measures and the “polluter-pays” principle. "It is a question of common sense, it is a question of prudence. When we hear about New GMOs we hear a lot of promises, I look at the reality... and we need to defend the rights of citizens and the value created by farmers,” he stated.
In her welcoming remarks, ENGA Secretary General Heike Moldenhauer, highlighted that in order to label a product as Non-GMO, one needs to know which plants have been produced with GMOs, with the old ones as well as the new ones. She said: “The Commission’s and the ENVI rapporteur’s proposal delete nearly all transparency requirements for nearly all NGTs – traceability, labelling, detection methods, not to mention coexistence rules. Both proposals put the whole GMO-free agriculture and food production at risk – not only the explicit Non-GMO sectors.” She made the clear point that contrary to claims that these are niche markets, they are in fact significant economic drivers: the conventional Non-GMO sector with annual sales of about 20 billion euros in 2022 and the EU organic sector with sales of about 55 billion euros in 2021.
First to come to the stage were the business representatives: Hans-Peter Dejakum from Loacker, a family-run wafer producer with plants in the Italian & Austrian Alps, Wolfgang Ahammer from VFI - Oils for Life, active in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, Fritz Konz of German retailer tegut... and Jan Plagge from IFOAM Organics Europe. It was immediately apparent that for all operators in the Non-GMO food sector of the utmost importance is traceability and labelling. Hans-Peter Dejakum stated that: “many countries are very strict about not allowing GMOs so this new GMO proposal must be strict when it comes to labeling and traceability”.
Wolfgang Ahammer went on to fight the corner of consumers, who he said “reject GMO foods – whether we call them NGTs or New GMOs. It is unbearable that foods from NGT 1 won’t have to be labelled. As producers, it is vital that the use of old and new GMOs is labelled – we should make the use of these new techniques visible on products.”
For Fritz Konz, of German supermarket tegut… freedom of choice is paramount and that comes through transparency and labelling: “The fact that we are moving away from scientific principles and not letting consumers choose is a scandal. Transparency and freedom of choice is very important. If someone wants to offer these products (with New GMOs), that’s very well, but this should be indicated,” he said.
Representing Europe’s organic sector, Jan Plagge was equally vociferous. “Organic food is produced without GMOs including NGTs. The European Organic movement is very clear about this: we are against GMOs – old and new!” He agreed with the other speakers that freedom of choice and environmental safety are key – for customers and producers. “The ban (of NGTs in organic) is essential in the new legislation,” he said.
Next up, the MEP panel – from across the political spectrum – were able to respond and reflect on business’ concerns. Michaela Sojdrová, from the European People’s Party and shadow rapporteur for her group in the AGRI Committee, was supportive of her colleague, Jessica Polfjärd’s (ENVI Committee rapporteur) report and stated that they are not requiring labelling for NGTs because it is not possible. She remarked that NGTs are needed to ensure food security and breeding innovation. This was also a concern of Juozas Olekas, from the Socialists & Democrats group (S&D), also a shadow rapporteur in the AGRI Committee who was focused on European food security and sovereignty, stating: “Safe, enough and affordable food are essential and must be the priority. (NGTs may be) instruments to achieve higher yields – less land, less water and plants that are more resistant to climate change.”
This was not a view shared by his colleague from the S&D, Maria Arena, who argued that NGTs may have undesirable effects: on health, on plants and on biodiversity and expressed her concerns about the contamination risk that NGTs pose. She went on to shine a light on the murky lobbying from the agrochemical industry (often the same companies as those who will benefit from NGTs) to use NGTs under the guise of reducing pesticide use. “There is a risk that this leads to hasty decisions on NGTs. And – guess what? It is the same companies on both sides”, she said.
The final MEP panelist, Martin Häusling, a veteran politician from the Greens and also an organic farmer himself, as well as the Greens’ shadow rapporteur in the ENVI Committee, showed his deep concern that it is being rushed through: “The whole thing is pushed through with no time for public debate. Let’s take the time to discuss this for longer.” He is worried, in particular, that the scientific basis for the legislation is “non-existent” and is sure that it is a political imperative that is leading it. He expressed his deep concerns about its eventual impact on small breeders, farmers and EU citizens.
Maria Noichl, in her closing remarks, echoed some of the outright astonishment expressed by the other speakers about the proposal and the draft ENVI rapporteur’s report, contradicting claims made earlier by some of her fellow MEPs, stating that “The potential of NGTs has never been proven anywhere!” She also emphasized the inherent unfairness of the current proposal: “What about companies that use New GMOs – where does liability lie?... The advantages are all on the big actors.” She agreed that there had been insufficient time and spotlight on the law and this, as well as its wider ramifications “closing doors that cannot be reopened” mean that, as it stands, the European Commission’s draft law on New Genomic Techniques, is a “threat to democracy.”