Put traceability and safety first with plant breeding legislation, say Greens

Bart Staes argues that new plant breeding techniques should come under GMO regulation. [European Parliament]

As the EU debates how to regulate the so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), critics have urged the Commission to build a legal framework that guarantees traceability and safety, while allowing farmers and consumers to support the model of farming of their choice.

The debate over NPBT regulation hinges on whether they should legally be regarded as GMOs, with the tight risk assessment, traceability and labelling requirements that this implies, or not, in which case they could be released onto the market with no such restrictions.

“It would certainly make things cheaper for the biotech industry but at what risk?” asked Bart Staes, a Belgian MEP and GMOs spokesman for the European Parliament’s Greens/EFA group.

New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) use genetic engineering to amplify desirable characteristics or remove undesirable ones. Supporters say they are needed to boost the sustainable intensification of agriculture and feed a growing population. They argue NPBTs simply speed up the natural process of evolution, fast-tracking the development of more resilient crop varieties that enable farmers to produce more with less.

For Staes, excluding NPBTs from the EU’s GMO framework would effectively mean that genetically engineered seeds would receive “no assessment before marketing, no biosafety measures, no traceability and no labelling”.

De Castro MEP: New plant breeding techniques are nothing like ‘Frankenstein’ GMOs

The vice-chair of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee has argued that Europe should embrace innovative biotechnologies to boost food production while cutting the environmental impact of farming, but environmentalists remain sceptical.

These techniques differ from ‘traditional’ genetic modification because no DNA from foreign organisms is introduced. But for their critics, these techniques are just an attempt to introduce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the EU through the back door.

“Give farmers and consumers the right to choose”

Staes told EURACTIV.com that the authorisation of NPBT plant varieties outside the EU’s GMO framework would deprive citizens of their right to choose what they eat and the model of farming they want to support. What is more, he added, if NPBT seeds were not labelled, even farmers would be unable to decide what kind of technology they use in their fields.

“These techniques are new and new facts are still being discovered about them. This means that if they are released, their impact should be monitored,” Staes added.

The Dutch government has already told the Commission it is keen to start authorising NPBT seeds outside the EU’s current GMO legislation.

But the European Commission is delaying its proposal for a regulatory framework until the European Court of Justice completes a ruling on whether one gene-editing technique, mutagenisis, qualifies for regulation under existing GMO legislation. The court was asked to settle the matter by the French Council of State.

Asked by EURACTV whether this ruling would set a precedent on which the EU executive will design its future legislative framework for NPBTs, the Commission replied that it could not speculate until it had seen the ruling, which is expected in early 2018.

“It is extremely difficult for now to foresee the decision of the Court in the matter,” said Staes.

But perhaps most importantly, the MEP added, “we are a bit tired that so much energy and EU public money is invested in GMOs, as they are tools of a chemical and industrial farming system which has proved it could not actually feed populations, when almost nothing is invested in real innovation in agro-ecology.”

Farmers fear 'political' court ruling on plant breeding techniques

EU farmers have expressed concerns about an ongoing court case on plant breeding techniques, saying it might end up being a “political” decision that does not take into account scientific and economic arguments.