Receive free Climate change updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Climate change news every morning.
Brussels plans to lift controls on some genetically modified crops to help farmers cope with climate change in a move likely to reignite a Europe-wide debate about the controversial techniques.
A draft EU regulation seen by the Financial Times proposes that many modified plants should be approved as conventional rather than go through the bloc’s existing GMO regime, which is laborious and expensive.
The plan would establish a category of plants that have used gene editing to create new varieties but could have been achieved through traditional breeding techniques. They include wheat that can withstand drought, tomatoes resistant to fungus and potatoes containing less acrylamide, which becomes carcinogenic when fried.
EU officials say the new techniques are vital to maintain crop yields as farmers contend with changing weather patterns, such as drought and floods. They would also reduce the use of pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals. The proposal could still be changed before being put forward by the European Commission on July 5.
“The science and the evidence show that these can be achieved also through conventional breeding of crops,” said an EU official.
“The economic rationale is very strong. If we want to cope with climate change and support food security we need these techniques.”
The proposal sets out different regulatory options but favours a light-touch regime for most new plant varieties — which would be “treated similarly to conventional plants and would not require authorisation, risk assessment, traceability and labelling as GMOs”. A transparency register would be established for these plants, according to the draft.
Gene editing is a form of engineering in which genes can be deleted or added from the same or similar species, accelerating a traditional process where scientists blend different species of plant. An example would be splicing a variety of wheat with a large ear, leading to high yields, with one with a thick stem, making it more resistant to wind.
It is distinct from genetic modification, which introduces DNA from foreign species.
Plants using gene editing that could not arise naturally would require full GMO authorisation. However, “measures would be introduced to incentivise plant products that could contribute to a sustainable agri-food system”, and crops judged as such would not have to carry a GMO label.
Only a handful of GMOs have been authorised in the EU, mainly to feed animals, because of public and political opposition to so-called Frankenfoods.
Greenpeace said it would oppose any relaxation and described the proposal as coming from an “unscientific fantasy world where corporations’ unproven claims of benefits are taken for granted and risks don’t exist”.
Eva Corral, Greenpeace EU GMO campaigner, said the union’s senior judges in 2018 had ruled that gene editing should be covered by the GMO regulation.
“The EU’s top court was clear that GMOs by another name are still GMOs. The EU must keep new GMOs regulated to make sure they pose no danger for nature, pollinators or human health.”
The proposal does call for careful treatment of herbicide-resistant plants, which have jumped species to result in herbicide-resistant weeds.
The Green party and others in the European parliament, which will have to approve the proposal, also oppose any change. However, most member states, which must also agree, have expressed support for a loosening of the GMO rules, according to a person familiar with recent discussions.
EU officials say they would monitor such effects and act accordingly. But they argue that looser regulation is necessary to ensure research is commercialised in the EU since many countries are embracing gene-edited crops.
It will also support smaller enterprises because there is less bureaucracy to commercialise crops.
Lifting an effective EU ban on gene-altered crops will also help the developing world, which is nervous to plant them if they cannot be exported to the EU.
“This can have positive global consequences,” said an EU official. “Other countries, especially in areas where food security issues are more acute, are watching what we do. This can be important for them to deal with climate change.”