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The European Union (EU)’s environmental committee has backed proposals to relax rules on genetically modified (GM) plants produced using new genomic techniques (NGTs), AP News reported.

Adopting its position on a European Commission (EC) proposal with 47 votes to 31, and 4 abstentions, the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee’s decision on 24 January was criticised by environmental groups, the report on the same date said.

The European Parliament was expected to vote on the proposed law during its 5-8 February plenary session before it could start negotiations with EU member countries, which remained divided on the issue, AP News wrote.

Earlier this year, 37 Nobel prize winners and other scientists had urged EU lawmakers to support NGTs, the report said.

The current legislation gives environmentalists the assurance that the EU will not allow multinational food companies to produce GM products in bulk without detailed labelling and warnings, according to the report.

EU lawmakers had agreed to create two different categories and two sets of rules for GM plants produced using NGTs. Those considered equivalent to traditional crops would be exempted from GM legislation, but other NGT plants would be required to follow current requirements.

The committee agreed that all NGT plants should remain banned in organic production. It also agreed on a ban on all patents filed for NGT plants, saying it would help “avoid legal uncertainties, increased costs and new dependencies for farmers and breeders”.

EU committee rapporteur Jessica Polfjard said the proposal was critical for strengthening Europe’s food safety in a sustainable way.

However, according to Greenpeace, if adopted, the new law could threaten the rights of farmers and consumers as it did not provide sufficient protection against the contamination of crops with new genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“Decades of progress in the EU on farmers’ rights, and protecting people’s health and the environment, should not be scrapped for the sake of biotech industry profits,” Greenpeace campaigner Eva Corral was quoted as saying.

“EU law does not prohibit research and development. It aims to ensure that what is developed does not breach EU citizens’ rights to health and environmental protection.”

The issue of GM plants had divided the EU for a generation before the bloc adopted legislation in 2001, AP News wrote.