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Green Biotech rEvolutions Newsletter
January 2016
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Guest Opinion

Free or freeze EU innovation

Garlich Von Essen, ESA Secretary General

Dear Readers,
 
2016. Like any New Year, this one as well starts with high expectations and many solemn declarations. Most of them are rather personal and ambitious ones, like quitting smoking or running the next Brussels Marathon.
By contrast, it seems that Europe as a whole is a lot less self-confident. We seem to see problems rather than solutions, risks rather than opportunities, and potential pitfalls rather than possible progress. Uncertainty is reason enough to maintain an unsatisfactory status quo rather than to invent and invest in new ways forward.
The current European Commission is probably one of the most political or politicised ones we have ever seen. Responding to a widespread criticism of its appetite to overregulate everything, Juncker’s team portrays itself as the EU body concentrating its work on “big things” that matter to citizens.
But unfortunately, the reality is different. The Commission seems to have abandoned policy making and policy enforcement in what is the core of the Union and what has made it a success story in the past: the single market and the common set of rules and laws. 
This is particularly striking in the agriculture and food area. The European Food Safety Authority is still supposed to render opinions of the highest possible scientific excellence, yet its findings are inconsequential when other factors, i.e. political opportunism, apply. And new plant breeding techniques are still praised in Sunday speeches as important tools that may help bring the knowledge-based bioeconomy of the future – but when it comes to their practical use, the precautionary principle is used to justify a lack of political leadership and sense of economic potential.
Caution will make you look left and right before crossing a street. Caution does not mean you keep looking left and right without ever crossing the street.
Politics is about making decisions. On the basis of the best advice available. Taking into account what shall be achieved. And making use of ones’ appointed role and prerogatives.
The European Commission has a political choice to free or freeze the innovative potential that new plant breeding techniques can bring to the EU’s agri-food chain and its entire economy. This is one of the “big things” to decide for Juncker’s team – so let us hope for a wise decision.


Yours sincerely,
Garlich Von Essen, ESA Secretary General
Quotes of the Month
 
EU regulation of GMOs is failing lamentably
– UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
 
The real facts – proving that GMOs are no more harmful for humans and environment than natural organisms are – are a drop in the ocean and cannot get through to our citizens
 
MEP and former Polish Ag Minister Jarosław Kalinowski
European & International News
EU Decision on Gene-Edited Plants
Will the Commission embrace science and innovation?

The publication of the Commission’s legal interpretation of which techniques lead to a GMO and which do not, is expected in the coming months. At EU level, discussions on new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) have reached the Council of ministers and the EP with an NBT hearing organised by the Agriculture Committee on 1st December. At Member State level, the Swedish Board of Agriculture confirmed the interpretation that some plants in which the genome has been edited using CRISPR-Cas9 do not fall under the EU’s definition of GMO. In addition, the German Competent Authority issued a report concluding, inter alia, that gene-editing tools such as ODM and CRISPR-Cas9 do not lead to GMOs. The need for the Commission to follow scientific advice and encourage innovation in plant breeding in the EU was also highlighted at the international conference “GMCC-15” in Amsterdam. As underlined in a recent Nature Article, scientists, using gene-editing technologies for instance, are concerned about the impact of the impending legal clarification that might cause them to drop their experiments and could deny them access to the most promising technologies. In the meantime, CRISPR-Cas9 has been voted as the ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ technology by Science magazine. 


Parliament Pressures EC to Break Law
Majority rejects, then demands moratorium

Less than two months after clearly rejecting demands for a moratorium on new GMO import approvals (cf. rEvolutions Nov 2015), the majority of MEPs took the opposite position in a plenary vote on 16 December. The Parliament’s objection to the authorisation of a GM maize product for import is non-binding and as with all other product approvals under the (democratically agreed) examination procedure under comitology, the EP can only object on the basis that the EC has exceeded its powers. In this particular case, the EC has not exceeded its powers and is following its legal obligation to put safe products to the vote and make authorization decisions in due time. The Commission has repeatedly clarified that “if the result of the vote in the Appeal Committee is “No opinion”, the Commission is required by the GMO legal framework and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights to adopt a decision on the application so, in practice, has little choice but to give the authorisation”. The objection vote comes only weeks after calls from numerous leading MEPs for a more balanced and reasonable debate on GMOs, and after an EPP hearing on the "Future of GMOs in Europe" at which EuropaBio stressed the need to implement the approval process properly. All presentations are available here.


New GM Products Overseas
Limited consumer choice in Europe

European politicians often say that they would no longer oppose GMOs if there were direct consumer benefits. The good news is that today, in addition to GMOs with benefits for farmers and the environment, a number of GMOs with direct consumer benefits are becoming available. Golden rice is now being grown in Bangladesh to tackle the threat of vitamin A deficiency. Several soya bean types with healthier oil profiles have been developed (PlenishVistive Gold and Omega 3) and the product pipeline also includes healthier rapeseed oils and Omega 9 sunflower oil. In addition, non-browning apples and potatoes with less bruising and reduced acrylamide when cooked have also reached the market. Furthermore, numerous public research projects are going on including in Europe, such as oilseeds enriched in Omega 3 and gluten free wheat. The bad news however is that European consumers are very unlikely to enjoy any of these beneficial products in the short term, not least because of the extreme costs and uncertainty linked to obtaining GMO authorisations in the region. A list of European public research projects which have been slowed, stopped or moved abroad due to regulatory hurdles and vandalism is available here


Intellectual Property
Farmers & consumers benefit from IP

In December, the EP adopted a political resolution on the issue of patents and plant breeders’ rights following the decision in March 2015 of the European Patent Office’s Enlarged Board of Appeal’s in the so-called ‘Broccoli’ and ‘Tomato’ II cases and attention being brought on patents and plant breeders’ rights by the Dutch government and MEPs in autumn of 2015. MEPs called upon the Commission to clarify the scope and interpretation of the Biotechnology Patents Directive 98/44/EC in order to prohibit the patentability of products obtained from essentially biological processes. This request however runs counter to the interpretation of the European Patent Convention undersigned by the 38 contracting parties to EPO. The Commission assured MEPs that it is looking for a workable solution for all stakeholders and it will work in close cooperation with the Dutch Presidency to avoid amending the Biotechnology Patents Directive while providing legal certainty and not jeopardising innovation in plant biotechnology. Meanwhile, in the framework of the 7th European Innovation Summit which took place in the EP mid-December, EuropaBio underlined the utmost importance of a stable biotechnology patent legislation and present  proposals to address the ongoing discussion on plant breeders’ rights. “To bring innovative agricultural products to the market, public institutions and private companies, including SMEs, need intellectual property protection,” said MEP Paul Rübig, who hosted the event.


Anti-GMO Activism on the Spot
Scaremongers lose their influence

While the Australian Greens are re-thinking their policy on GM crops, Greenpeace is suffering setbacks in the country, where their tax-free donations status is being questioned by Parliamentarians following anti-GMO vandalism. Meanwhile, Greenpeace lost its registration in India, amidst accusations of engaging in financial fraud and falsifying data. In Italy, 34 activists were fined and given suspended sentences for destroying a GMO field. However, Greenpeace’s influence is still felt in a number of other countries. In the Philippines for example, a court ruled that farmers will not be allowed to grow an insect resistant aubergine prompting the British environmental activist Mark Lynas to comment: “In effect, the Court has decided that Greenpeace and its fellow activists are more competent to pronounce on scientific matters than the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and the Departments of Agriculture and of Environment and Natural Resources.”


How Can Farmers Adapt to Climate Change?
Genetic engineering one of the tools

Early December the Paris Climate Conference COP 21 negotiated a global agreement on the reduction of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, the atmospheric temperature raises, threatening our food security. Adaptation to global warming is a huge challenge as we need to supply sufficient food to a growing population in a less and less predictable environment. In a recent article “Agriculture, the forgotten climate change issue” Mark Lynas highlights that genetic engineering can help farmers fight against climate change. The project ‘Water Efficient Maize for Africa’, which aims to develop a variety of drought-tolerant maize seeds, is a good example of such efforts. Read more in EuropaBio’s factsheets on farming and the environment and food security
From the Member States
 Germany: Pushback on Misleading Information
A programme on German public TV channel ZDF claimed that scientific risk assessment is bad and brought to us from the USA. A scientists group subsequently accused ZDF of “willingly deceiving viewers for the sake of sensationalism.”

 Italy: Scientists & Government Favor NBTs
In mid-December, Italian plant geneticists met in Rome to speak up in favour of the freedom to develop and apply new breeding techniques in Italy and to endorse the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council’s statement from July 2015 on new breeding techniques. Alessandra Gentile, president of CREA – the Italian Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economics Analysis operating under the supervision of the Agriculture Ministry – reaffirmed the Ministry’s intention to ensure wider freedom to operate for plant science, by setting guidelines and promoting new breeding opportunities for crops necessary for “made in Italy” production.


 Italy: Pro-GMO Voices
The Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio published an editorial “300 to 0 for GMOs” asserting GM food as healthy, safe and useful in comparison to U.S. restaurant chain Chipotle’s non-GMO stance which has backfired after E.coli was found in their burritos. Another positive voice was that of Nobel Prize winner Richard Roberts, who defended GMOs in a recent interview. He stated that organic and environmental groups orchestrate misinformation about GMOs for political and economic reasons at the expense of Third World countries.


 Portugal: GMOs Are a Political Issue
The Magazine Vida Rural published an editorial on GMOs, referring to them as “political issue”. The author stressed that Portuguese farmers have difficulties to stay competitive in the global market as they are not allowed to use many of the GM plant varieties used by farmers in other parts of the world. The editorial was followed by a an interview with Professor Wayne Parrott, who stressed that GMOs are already part of our everyday lives and criticised the lengthy GMO approval system in Europe. 
 Switzerland: Moratorium on GM Crops to Be Extended?
In December, the Swiss government proposed a further extension to 2021 of the ban existing since 2005 for all commercial plantings of GM crops in Switzerland. The decision still has to be confirmed by the Swiss Parliament, which has already extended the moratorium a number of times in the past (official media release in French, German). Basic research, like the ongoing field trials with GM mildew-resistant wheat and blight-resistant potatoes, should not be directly affected.


 UK: Importance of Innovation for Farmers
During the National Farmers' Union conference on the future of GM technology in Britain, Renaud Wilson from the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that “the Government wants access to new technologies, including GM”. Regarding new breeding techniques he specified that the Government is “not thrilled at the prospect of these new techniques being subjected to the same dysfunctional regulatory process that has hampered the EU’s ability to grow classic GM”. Whilst addressing the annual Northern Farming Conference, Food and Farming Minister George Eustice MP said that technological innovation is the key to unlocking the potential of farming. Eustice announced that the Government is investing some of its £160 million Agri-Tech Strategy funding into a range of food and farming ‘Catalyst’ projects across Northern England. Read more

 UK: Successful Use of New Gene Editing Techniques
Farmers Weekly reported on the latest findings by researchers at the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury’s Laboratory in gene editing technology. The research has shown that CRISPR gene-editing technology can be successfully used to make targeted changes to specific genes in two UK crops, a broccoli-like brassica and barley. 
Science & Miscellaneous
90-Day Feeding Studies Found Unnecessary
Will the Commission act?

GRACE, a European Commission project initiated in 2012 by an independent academic consortium with the aim to test various types of animal feeding trials in order to determine their scientific value for health risk assessments of GM food and feed, concluded in their final report that there is no scientific justification for a mandatory 90-day feeding study, but that requesting such studies should be hypothesis-driven and case-by-case. As stipulated in the legislation, the Commission is now supposed to evaluate the outcome of the EU-funded project and review the current requirement for mandatory 90-day studies. Read more in Europabio’s press release

Get your Facts Straight on Ag Biotech
Must reads in 2016

Three books not to be missed in 2016! (1) Innovation and Its Enemies by Professor Calestous Juma looks into the tension between the need for innovation and the pressure to maintain social order and stability and makes the case that modern controversies over new technologies grow out of distrust in public and private institutions. (2) The GMO revolution by Wim Grunewald and Jo Bury from the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) offers an insight into how GM crops can help solve the current and future agricultural issues, by focusing on the environment, the farmer and the consumer. The book gives a fact-based overview of the impact of current and future GM applications and introduces the reader to a plethora of crops. (3) Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development authored by Matin Qaim analyses the impacts of current and possible future GM crop applications and shows that these technologies can contribute considerably to sustainable agricultural development and food security.
Member States Voting on GMOs
GM crop characteristics do not matter

Member States vote the way they do on GMO authorisations because of endogenous factors, whereas other factors like a GM crop’s characteristics play an unimportant role, write R. Smart, M. Blum and J. Wesseler in “EU Member States’ voting for authorizing genetically engineered crops: a regulatory gridlock”. Despite the European Commission’s stated intention to “improve the process” with its so called opt-out legislation, reaching a qualified majority in favour of approving safe GMOs remains unlikely due to the “strong blocking effect of a few ‘heavy weight’ voters like France, Germany, Italy and (…) Poland”. Read more in EuropaBio’s factsheet EU Member States and GMOs.
 
Improved Resistance to Fungal Diseases
Wheat gene transferred to rice

Fungal plant diseases are responsible for major losses in crop production, including in rice, which provides a daily staple for more than half of the world's population. Researchers have now transferred the multi-pathogen resistance wheat gene Lr34 to rice which has resulted in increased resistance against the fungal pathogen Magnaporthe oryzae, the causal agent of rice blast disease. Read more 


Miscellaneous
  • Promoting public benefits of GM technology must be prioritised (FarmingUK)
  • How GM crops can benefit organic farmers too (The Conversation)
  • Monsanto takes action to fight climate change, commits to carbon neutral footprint by 2021 (press release)
  • DuPont and Dow to combine in merger of equals (press release)
EuropaBio Informs
Successful European Biotech Week
Flip through the magazine to look back at 100+ events in 15 countries during the third edition of European Biotech Week. See you at the next edition! (Sept 26 - Oct 2, 2016).
 
GMO Authorisation Needs Legal Certainty
Nathalie Moll, EuropaBio Secretary General, has called for a shift to a more coherent and science-based approach to EU policymaking. All you really need is to adhere to legal timelines and authorise safe products. Read more in the Parliament Magazine October edition dedicated to GMOs. 
Discover YOUR Country’s GM Approach
If you want to know how much GM soy your EU Member State imports per person, and whether your country votes in favour or against the science, check out our infographic.

Bayer CropScience CEO on TradeTalks
“Organic farms alone cannot feed the world”, writes Liam Condon, CEO of Bayer CropScience. Do not miss out on the articles from EuropaBio’s Trade Talk blog and join the debate on @GrowingVoicesEU!

Selection For Your Agenda

Contacts

EuropaBio is the European Association for Bioindustries. Our Secretary General is Nathalie Moll. The Green Biotechnology Team are Beat Späth, Katarzyna Jasik, Pedro Narro, Delphine Carron  and Violeta Georgieva. For more information and our contact details, please check http://www.europabio.org/.
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