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Document 52002AE0514

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Proposal for a Council Regulation on the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture and amending Regulation (EC) No 1258/1999" (COM(2001) 617 final (Volume I) — 2001-0256 (CNS))

OJ C 149, 21.6.2002, p. 11–13 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Proposal for a Council Regulation on the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture and amending Regulation (EC) No 1258/1999" (COM(2001) 617 final (Volume I) — 2001-0256 (CNS))

Official Journal C 149 , 21/06/2002 P. 0011 - 0013

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Proposal for a Council Regulation on the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture and amending Regulation (EC) No 1258/1999"

(COM(2001) 617 final (Volume I) - 2001-0256 (CNS))

(2002/C 149/04)

On 22 November 2001 the Council decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Articles 36 and 37 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned proposal.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 4 April 2002. The rapporteur was Mr Ribbe.

At its 39th plenary session of 24 and 25 April 2002 (meeting of 24 April) the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion with 89 votes in favour and 2 abstentions.

1. Introduction

1.1. Council Regulation (EC) No 1467/94 on the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture launched a five-year action programme that expired on 31 December 1999. This action programme was the Commission's response to various European Parliament resolutions dating back to the eighties which had pointed to the problem of genetic erosion and proposed Community initiatives to counter this process.

1.2. Under this action programme various projects were financed, most of which focused on the characterisation of available ex situ genetic resources; gene banks, research institutes and users were the main participants in the projects. Sometimes NGOs were also involved under the aegis of scientific institutions.

1.3. As provided for in Regulation (EC) No 1467/94, the action programme was evaluated by a group of independent experts after it had terminated. Their report was forwarded to the Council and European Parliament. It gave the programme a generally positive assessment and called for the actions to be maintained and strengthened, recommending inter alia:

- a better balance between "plant" and "animal" projects;

- including the concept of in situ/on farm conservation to meet international undertakings and the needs of the ecoregions;

- more active participation by NGOs;

- increased coordination between the Member States and the Commission with regard to negotiations and actions at FAO level;

- in general gearing the projects to broader Member State participation.

1.4. In the present draft regulation the Commission is proposing a new Community action programme to run for another five years.

2. General comments

2.1. The Committee warmly welcomes the fact that the Commission is presenting a new Community action programme. It stresses that the loss of genetic resources in agriculture has been far from halted, so that further efforts are needed (a) to characterise, compile an inventory of and conserve the gene potential and (b) to maintain the utilisation of genetic diversity by farms.

2.2. The properties - i.e. genetic potential - of known species, some of which are highly endangered or threatened with extinction, have been assessed only fragmentarily. An important reason for preserving all gene resources is thus the potential use of their previously unknown properties.

2.3. There are major shortcomings in the compilation of a gene potential inventory in databases and in the networking of existing databases, uncertainties also exist concerning access to databases and the right to use them.

2.4. Firstly, there is the scientific approach, aimed at ensuring the conservation of the gene potential for possible future use. For this, theoretically we only need gene banks or to conserve a comparatively small number of living specimens in a kind of "botanical or zoological garden".

2.5. Trends in biological diversity, in agriculture for example, are of course affected by economic criteria, but other factors are also relevant such as climatic conditions, the appearance of new diseases in Europe and favourable trends in plant-health conditions. In parallel with this scientific approach there is the no less important need to ensure that the diversity of genetic resources continues to be used in farming by promoting environmentally sound practices such as diversity in crop rotation under the second pillar of the CAP. Other measures should also be envisaged to preserve the use of rare breeds of productive livestock.

2.6. Conserving this diversity is undoubtedly in the public - and European - interest. In its opinion on The situation of nature and nature conservation in Europe(1) the Committee stated that preserving wild animal and plant species is a European task, even if some of these species are to be found only in particular regions. The same applies to animal and plant species which are not found in the wild; they are more than "just" gene sequences of potential scientific use. They are an expression of Europe's diverse farming and landscape heritage and worth preserving.

3. Specific comments

3.1. It is noteworthy that between the expiry of the old programme (31 December 1999) and the present proposal for a new programme, almost two years have elapsed. This suggests that the Commission thought long and hard about continuing it.

3.2. The Committee welcomes the increase in funding from EUR 20 million in total to EUR 10 million per annum. It should be clear, however, that while such a sum can finance very valuable measures for scientifically compiling an inventory of, characterising and archiving genetic resources, it is in no way sufficient to support the widespread use of less economically interesting plants in agricultural practice.

3.2.1. Therefore the Committee welcomes the fact that Article 9 of the proposal adds measures to intended to ensure the conservation, characterisation, collection and utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture to Article 1(2) of Regulation (EC) No 1258/1999.

3.2.2. In this connection it will be important that appropriate programmes and measures be provided at Member State level; they should not be restricted - as hitherto - to species of which only a few remain, i.e. under imminent threat of extinction.

3.3. Despite the fact that the Commission is proposing a new action programme, the Committee has the impression that the importance of direct Community action in this field is not fully recognised. For instance, in contrast to the arrangements under the previous programme, no more Community projects will be initiated and carried out. The new action programme will be implemented solely through measures at Member State level, partly in the form of multinational programmes. Programmes financed from Community funds will not even be approved in Brussels: Member States merely notify the Commission of the programmes and any amendments thereto (Article 4(1)). The Commission is thus relinquishing the option of initiating Community measures in those sectors where the Member States are not active. This is a shortcoming.

3.4. The proposed repeal of Regulation (EC) No 1467/94 - which allowed the Community to initiate its own projects - should be reconsidered. It is also essential that the Commission should retain its important coordinating role in this sector. This goes beyond the strict scope of the measures in this regulation and encompasses, for instance, coordination between Member States at international level.

3.5. Article 7 states that the Member States are to contribute at least 15 % of the costs, while the Community contribution is 35 %, i.e. the projects' sponsors must themselves find up to 50 %. In the case of programmes such as these, where there is not always an obvious immediate financial benefit, there is thus a danger that certain projects which could be important for the conservation and especially the utilisation of genetic resources will not come to fruition.

3.6. In general the Committee is still not clear how things stand with regard to the continuity of the Commission's commitment in this important sector. The measures and activities planned by the Commission - which are necessary to do justice to the scale of the task and which must go far beyond the proposed specific five-year programme - should be announced to the relevant European bodies and to the general public in a separate communication.

3.7. The Committee is not clear what is meant by "ecoregions" [cf. Article 4(1)(c)]. Who determines these regions (according to what criteria)?

3.7.1. The Commission should draw up a report examining how Regulation (EC) No 1257/99 on support for rural development could to be framed so as to give greater support for cultivating rare plant species and for keeping rare breeds of productive livestock as a part of a multifunctional agriculture and of a comprehensive programme for the conservation and utilisation of genetic resources.

Brussels, 24 April 2002.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Göke Frerichs

(1) ESC Opinion on "The situation of nature and nature conservation in Europe", OJ C 221, 7.8.2001, pp. 130-137.