The European Parliament adopted the Nature Restoration Law. What's in it and what would be its impacts?
Garlich von Essen: First proposed in June 2022 by the European Commission as part of the European Green Deal and its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, the Nature Restoration Law's aim is to restore and re-establish healthy, resilient and productive ecosystems as a critical means to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. Its central proposed measures, however, would imply an extensification of agriculture in those areas – up to a factual stop of farming altogether...
Next to the obvious impact on farm income from holdings falling in those areas, there is an equally logical impact on food security, especially in the new context of the war in Ukraine. The problem is that it is very difficult to predict what the legislation's real impacts will be and when they will actually materialize.
This involves highly complex scientific and technical questions regarding the validity of some assumptions and the relative positive and long-term impacts of a broad range of measures on individual activities, businesses and regions. What is much clearer is the immediate impact on productivity and output and, in these times of high inflation, on prices and thus on Europeans' purchasing power.
No wonder farmers are worried: they need to know what such a law would do to their production and at what cost. Loosing volumes, productivity and farm income cannot be the answer. The ambition is laudable, and shared by everyone, but the proposal, which was drafted in 2019/2020 – in other words, before Covid, before Ukraine, before inflation – needs to undergo a reality check.
We need to strike a balance. The goal is to fight climate change and protect the environment and biodiversity. It must not, however, come as an unacceptable burden solely for agricultural producers. We need to find the fastest impacts, at a reasonable cost. And technology can help.
Precisely, another hot topic is New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) like CrisprCas, with a revision of the legislation...
G.V.E: The proposal finally acknowledges that these new technologies exist and that the current legislation, completely outdated, is unfit to deal with them. The question now is: do we want to use them and how? These technologies are versatile and can be used in different ways: to develop plants that are basically the same as today, or in such a way that the resulting product is a classical transgenic GMO.
What we therefore ask is that, logically, in the first case, they should not be regulated like GMOs, while in the second, they should. So, it is not the technologies per se, but the type of plants we develop that must determine the rules.
The European Parliament now discusses the proposal in the Environment Committee and the Agriculture Committee. In parallel, the Council of Ministers will look into it. So, do we want to use science and technology that help us make faster progress on climate-resilient, resource-efficient and productive plants we could also obtain by current methods, but more slowly? If the answer is “yes”, and I hope it will be, we could come to a political agreement before the end of this Parliament's mandate in April 2024.
Europe would then be able to fall in line with the rest of the world, which has already adopted favorable legislations on NGTs.
What is at stake for agri and agro businesses?
G.V.E: Europe is the world's largest exporter and importer of food. There is a broad alliance of scientists, plant breeders and farmers across the agri-food sector committed to contribute to a Europe that can play its role in global agricultural production and food security, based on a resource-efficient and environmentally friendly system. To do so, we need to embrace the latest technologies, such as NGTs, but also precision agriculture as well as optics, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence.
I am convinced that all these innovations can help us achieve our shared objectives. We can't afford to waste time. Our challenges are imminent, from climate change to purchasing power, and our competitors are moving forward.
And for seeds producers?
G.V.E.: From a breeding perspective, NGTs are a key element. Together with an effective seeds marketing legislation, we would be well set to maintain Europe's leading role in plant breeding and seeds production.
We need to provide the best seeds, with the highest yields possible, using as little natural resources and other inputs as possible. This requires huge investments and R&D from seeds developers and could be accelerated with public support or tax incentives.
This also supports the overarching objective of the Green Deal and even the Nature Restoration Law. What is at stake is to maintain the strategic base of agricultural production and food security in Europe, protect our natural resources and environment, and bring added value to Europe's economy and citizens.