Second panel of the international conference on the contribution of national parliaments to improving the CAP dedicated to the Declaration on GMO-free Alps-Adriatic-Danube region

Zagreb - Chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, Marijana Petir, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture of the Hungarian Parliament Sándor Font and Executive Director of the Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food Darja Sokolić presented their keynote speeches about the Declaration on GMO-free Alps-Adriatic-Danube region and the review of the proposals for new European Commission Regulations concerning plants obtained by new genomic techniques and the production and marketing of plant reproductive material.

- With the Croatian Parliament Declaration on GMO-free Alps-Adriatic-Danube region, we wanted to emphasize that the natural resources we manage, which are also a resource for food production due to their biological diversity, are of immeasurable value, the preservation of which should be constant, said Petir and added that, on the example of the entire Alps-Adriatic-Danube region, it is important to emphasize the conditionality of high-quality food production, which is based on the daily efforts of family farms and their efforts to preserve and rationally use the resources they use for this production.

Speaking about the preservation and protection of resources, she pointed out that this simultaneously affects the preservation and strengthening of rural local communities and the retention of residents in rural areas. Also, as she emphasized, the Declaration warns of the importance of harmonious and sustainable coexistence with nature and expresses support for environmentally sensitive and ecological cultivation of agricultural products, as well as the preservation of biodiversity as a pledge of a secure future. We believe that it is important to support the member states in their determination to be GMO-free and that it is necessary to continue to finance projects aimed at environmentally sensitive agricultural production, but also to promote and brand local and high-quality food and to focus more on ecological agricultural production and cultivation of GMO-free products, supporting their position and competitiveness on the market, Petir said.

In the following, she spoke about the need for adequate declaration of GMO-free products and the establishment of clear criteria related to the labelling of these products, as well as the strengthening of control bodies, official and reference laboratories for GMOs. She also warned that the European Commission continues to grant approvals for the registration of new GMO products for use within the EU, despite the opposition of the European Parliament and the decision of the European Court of Justice. - If we add to that the concern caused by the new regulations on plants obtained by new genomic techniques and the production and trade of plant reproductive material that are currently in the adoption procedure, it is the right time to open a dialogue and address our determination that we want to maintain the status of a GMO-free region, emphasized Petir.

Speaking about the goals of relevant European documents such as the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy, she said that they are directed towards sustainable agricultural production and the preservation of rural areas and include the goal of 25 percent of the area under organic production by 2030, emphasizing how organic farming excludes the use of GMOs. –This Declaration opens up space for strengthening organic production, and this is precisely why we have invited the countries of the Alps-Adriatic-Danube region to join our initiative so that the entire area becomes free of genetically modified organisms, concluded Petir and sent this invitation to the representatives of all other parliaments to join this initiative and make the necessary effort so that support for GMO-free areas is accepted in their countries as well. On that occasion, Petir called on the European Commission to introduce compensations/subsidies for farmers who stop using glyphosate-based plant protection products and to find an alternative for this type of plant protection products through research and development, i.e. a replacement active substance that will benefit nature , the environment and the health of people and animals to be safer and less harmful, and equally effective in protecting plants and agricultural production.

The Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture of the Hungarian Parliament, Sándor Font, spoke about the unpredictability and impact of GMO organisms on human health, but also on the environment, warning that they cannot be controlled. – Hungary has special laws according to which we as a country have unanimously decided that we want to be a GMO-free area since 2006, and since 2012 this provision has been included in our Constitution, said Font and added that he agrees with all the goals of the Alps-Adriatic-Danube Declaration, stressing that he believes that there should be adequate procedures and permits when we are talking about GMO products. Font also said that it is important to do everything in our power to adequately control such products as well as perform the necessary analyses and systematically disable those who would try to cheat the existing laws. - The priority is to ensure that only GMO-free food comes to our market, and this applies equally to food for humans and animal food, Font concluded.

A detailed overview of the activities, when it comes to GMOs in Croatia and its control, was given by the director of the Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food, Darja Sokolić, primarily speaking about the production of soybeans.-Croatia has significant potential and resources for the production of soybeans, which includes suitable soils, developed cultivation technology , educated producers, and most importantly own cultivars and developed conventional breeding methods that are adapted to our agro-ecological conditions and are characterized by high values of agronomic properties, Sokolić said in the introduction, adding that soybeans, in addition to the nutritional aspect, also play a major role in the sustainability of the agro-eco system by enriching the soil with organically bound nitrogen, which contributes to the richness of the soil.

She went on to state that in Croatia, in the past 10 years, soybean production has risen from 50,000 hectares to as much as 100,000 hectares, which, she emphasized, makes soybeans the third most abundant crop in agricultural land. It is important to point out that almost entire annual area of soybeans was sown with seeds that were produced and processed in Croatia, Sokolić pointed out, stressing that at the same time we provide domestic needs for soybeans, while part of the seeds are exported to third countries. Sokolić also said that according to certified quantities of seeds in 2023, Croatia is the third largest producer of soybeans in the European Union. At 7,167 hectares, in 2023, Croatia recorded the largest area of soybeans in its history, and in the period from 2022 to 2023, the amount of certified soybean seeds is about 8.5 thousand tons, Sokolić said. In conclusion, she presented the work of the National Reference Laboratory for GMOs of the Croatian Agency for Agriculture and Food, stating that it analyses, controls and determines GMOs in seeds, food and animal feed.

After the introductory presentations, the chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament Norbert Lins, the vice-chair of the Committee for Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management of the National Council of Austria Nikolaus Berlakovich, the president of the Association Biogarden - in harmony with nature Silvia Kolar Fodor and the best European organic young farmer 2022 David Pajić spoke at the panel. Lins expressed his personal doubts about the Commission's proposals and genomic breeding techniques and asked the conference participants how coexistence between organic and conventional farming and the impact of new technologies on farming can be guaranteed. The Commission takes into account that there is a political will for organic farming even when we talk about seeds and varieties and new breeding methods and takes into account the importance of labelling, but I invite you to discuss whether we should treat all new breeding techniques as if they were GMOs, Lins emphasized.

The representative of Austria, Berlakovich, said that Austria has a long history related to the use of genetic industries in agriculture and emphasized that the first law on genetic engineering was passed in the parliament in 1994. Since 2002, Austria has been the first country to vote its territory as the GMO-free area and all Austrian provinces have accepted it, Berlakovich said, adding that there are 64 regions in the EU that are part of the GMO-free area common alliance. He went on to say that more and more legislative solutions are moving in the direction of banning GMOs, but on the other hand, he also warned that the Commission rejected some decisions to ban it, that is, it left it up to each country to decide, according to him. - In this regard, I can say that Austria went a step further and launched the Danube-soy initiative with the purpose of reducing dependence on GMO soybeans from South America, and 24 European governments joined that initiative, Berlakovich concluded.

Silvia Kolar Fodor, the president of the association Biogarden in harmony with nature, spoke about the high climate and environmental requirements of the EU, but, as she expressed her fear, the European Commission is doing the exact opposite with the new laws. - In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that the products of new technologies are GMOs and that they should be regulated as such, but the new legislative proposal is the opposite of that, said Kolar Fodor. She cited a number of examples that enable GMOs, primarily pointing out that there is no consumer protection, and there is no way back when GMO organisms end up in the environment. She also warned about the potentially greater use of pesticides with new genetic techniques. There is also the problem of coexistence with organic agriculture, and there are effective protection mechanisms, Kolar Fodor said, adding that it is a question of patents that the Commission is not dealing with for now. She also raised the issue of the use of bio-piracy because, as she said, the new law is not aimed at preserving biodiversity, but at exploiting it for profit.

The best European organic farmer in 2022, David Pejić, said that the fact that Croatia is a GMO-free zone makes him particularly proud, stressing that it is not just a title. - It is a commitment that we have taken together for a sustainable future, that by 2030, 25 percent of the EU's agricultural areas will be under organic cultivation, said Pajić. He warned of the contradiction between the spread of ecological production and conventional production, which is becoming less and less ecological. - The ecological damage caused by chemicals like DDT and the long-term health consequences of leaded gasoline had not only local but also global consequences, Pejić emphasized, adding that in the context of genomic modification, today's innovation can be tomorrow's regret. In conclusion, he pointed out that we must not lose sight of people's health, the biodiversity of the land and the integrity of traditions. - In order to preserve what we have built, we must be active and vigilant, we actively defend our status as a GMO-free zone by rejecting new genomic techniques because they fundamentally contradict our ethos of sustainable and ethical agriculture, said Pejić.

The debate was attended by representatives of national parliaments, most of whom supported the GMO-free concept and initiative of the Croatian Parliament, talking about concerns about the spread of GMOs on the one hand, but also ensuring sufficient agricultural production and strengthening the competitiveness of existing farms on the other. Special attention was paid to securing biodiversity on European soil as well as introducing a scientific approach to new technologies in agriculture by investing more funds in innovation and research. When it comes to the decision of an individual state on the use of GMO organisms, it was said that information about this is one of the key challenges, and it was emphasized that consumers themselves must have the option of choice, as well as the states themselves, some of which, as warned, may not have the capacity to be GMO-free. It was also warned that little is still known about GMOs, as well as about their consequences. It was emphasized that in the preparation of legislative solutions, the needs of the farmers themselves must be listened to and thereby enable them to stay and survive in the countryside and rural areas.

The closing speech was given by the director-general at Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission, Wolfgang Burtscher, who said at the beginning that this topic is very complex for the EU. - On the one hand, some believe that it is for ethical reasons or principles and precautions to preserve biological diversity that such techniques should not be used, but on the other hand, we also have those who advocate the use of new technologies for the sake of food security and nutrition sustainability, said Burtscher adding that ethics is the key to this debate and should be taken into account as such.

Speaking about the use of pesticides, he emphasized that, on the one hand, we ensure sustainability with them, but on the other hand, we are aware that we need to reduce them because there is tangible evidence of their harm to human health. When it comes to the lack of food, he emphasized that new technologies could enable a sufficient amount of it, but on the other hand, according to him, this is also an ethical issue that can be discussed. - When the Commission proposed a new regulation, it did not take it very lightly, aspects of human health were also observed and to what extent new techniques can help us to make agriculture more sustainable, emphasized the director-general at Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, concluding that the Commission put the proposal on the table, and the decision will be made by the Council and the Parliament.