Trade body: Don’t lump ‘new plant breeding techniques’ in with GMOs

Dr Teresa Babuscio, Secretary General at COCERAL.

If new plant breeding techniques fall under GMO legislation, SMEs in Europe will be severely hit, Dr Teresa Babuscio said in an interview with euractiv.com 

Teresa Babuscio is Secretary General at COCERAL, the European association of trade in cereals, rice, feedstuffs, oilseeds, olive oil, oils and fats and agro-supply. COCERAL represents the interests of the European collectors, traders, importers, exporters and port silo storekeepers of these agricultural products.

Dr Babuscio spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

The European Commission is currently working on legal analysis to give guidance on interpreting the definition of GMOs in relation to organisms produced by new plant breeding techniques. What will be the cost of not giving a green light to these new techniques?

Indeed, the European Commission is completing a review to determine whether so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), or which of them, if any, are to be considered equivalent to GMOs and therefore subject to the same legal requirements in the EU.

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NPBTs are methods to develop plant varieties with certain desired characteristics. They allow us to obtain similar results to those that can be achieved through conventional breeding, albeit more precisely and efficiently. In most cases, these techniques do not involve the introduction of foreign DNA to a plant variety and are not distinguishable from their conventionally-bred counterparts, although some may also be applied to achieve the same kind of results as obtained by transgenesis.

These new techniques can be applied to obtain products that are, for example, resistant to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses such as droughts. Specific potential applications include, among others, rice with bacterial leaf blight resistance, oilseed rape with herbicide tolerance, wheat with powdery mildew resistance, maize with drought tolerance and herbicide tolerance and soybean with improved oil quality. By arriving faster to the desired trait, NPBTs reduce food waste and the need for crop protection products in the process and, in this way, contribute to an overall more sustainable agri-food chain.

Fresh EU-US trade spat brewing over new plant breeding techniques

EXCLUSIVE / After Europe’s decision to keep its door shut to GMOs, the European Commission is trying its best to avoid opening a new trade row with the United States over how to regulate so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NPBTs).

In numerical terms, Europeans waste around 90 million tonnes of food every year, a figure which could rise to over 120 million tonnes by 2020. Avoiding only 10% of food waste, for instance through products with improved shelf-life, more accurate production specifications and higher harvesting efficiency, would reduce 9 million tonnes of waste every year. This is the equivalent of €38 billion and 36 million tonnes of CO2 saved, which would however be compromised if unnecessary barriers on NPBTs were to be imposed.

From an industry-wide perspective, the European plant breeding sector earns around €8.6 billion yearly and includes more than 7,000 companies, in turn employing some 50,000 workers in the EU.

A significant portion of these companies are SMEs, which are a major driver of innovation and economic growth but are also highly dependent on access to technology. Not giving a green light to applications of NPBTs that do not raise the same questions as GMOs, or indistinctively subjecting them to GMO laws, would exclude SMEs from applying these tools and would exclude the application of NPBTs for plants other than the major crops (e.g. maize and soybeans).

In addition, SMEs would likely not be able to withstand the competition from non-EU companies able to use these techniques without the constraints of any GM legislation and therefore have a lower cost base. Overall, this would have a substantial negative impact on jobs, research and development and economic growth in the EU.

Environmentalist NGOs suggest that the EU’s GMO laws should be fully applied to the so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’, as in the event that they “escape” EU regulations, any potential negative effects on food, feed or environmental safety would go unchecked. What is your argument on that?

COCERAL supports strictly abiding by science in decision-making and our arguments are always strictly science-based, so let’s look at that. There is considerable consensus among the scientific community that most applications of NPBTs do not involve the introduction of foreign genes and the products obtained should not be considered GMOs. Moreover, and importantly from a competitive standpoint, those applications lead to plant materials that to date cannot be identified and distinguished from their counterparts obtained by conventional breeding.

For instance the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established that no specific additional or new hazards are associated with cisgenic plants in comparison with conventionally bred plants. Additionally, six EU Member States have issued opinions indicating that Oligonucleotide Directed Mutagenesis (ODM) does not create GM plant products. In fact, where GM material is used only as a tool to induce specific mutations, the resulting plants are free of foreign DNA.

Therefore, if, in most cases, products developed through NPBTs cannot be distinguished from their conventionally bred counterparts, and do not create any additional risks, why should they be subject to additional requirements? Science tells us that there is no reason for that and that is what COCERAL supports.

Could you name the main advantages and disadvantages of these new techniques?

NPBTs respond to contemporary challenges such as the need to produce more food and energy for an ever-growing population using less land, water and resources and more sustainably, in a changing climate. These techniques are the result of mankind trying to gradually improve plant varieties over the past 200 years. The need to produce at higher efficiency rates and increasing yields at greater speed became evident in the second half of the past century, when population growth and urbanisation pushed agriculture to marginal lands.

NPBTs benefit consumers, inasmuch as they provide for reliable and good-value-for-money products with improved nutritional characteristics, different taste, reduced allergens, longer shelf-life, etc. At the same time, they open access to high-quality plant varieties that allow farmers to produce food and feed in a more efficient and sustainable manner, thus generating much needed economic benefits. And, of course, contributing to a more sustainable agri-food production ultimately benefits us all.

However, and although these techniques represent an improvement with respect to previous breeding methods, it is clear that science is constantly evolving, and therefore these techniques are not perfect; who knows what wonders scientific research will bring us in the future! What is clear today is that only a regulatory regime that does not pose unjustified and unnecessary burdens will allow for the farmers and consumers of today to fully enjoy their advantages, while allowing for scientists to continue to innovate so that the farmers and consumers of tomorrow can enjoy even more efficient and sustainable varieties.

Do you believe that if new plant breeding techniques, or some of them, gain access to the EU market, the GMO discussion will be revived in Europe?

It is difficult to anticipate what the future will bring in terms of public debate because such discussions are often motivated by emotions and political considerations. COCERAL firmly believes that NPBTs which, according to consolidated science, do not constitute GMOs, should not be subject to GMO legislation.

The rationale behind this reasoning is clear. If it is impossible to distinguish between products that are identical except for their breeding method, when the products do not raise any specific concerns for public health or the environment, why applying GM legislation? In addition, if products cannot be distinguished, how can exporters, importers, handlers and other operators along the supply chain identify which products are to be subject to authorisation, labelling and other requirements, and which are not? Not basing any classification on strictly scientific considerations and risk assessment and management procedures will render any decision unworkable and physically impossible to implement. On top of that, the EU’s international trade obligations under the World Trade Organisation are formulated in a way which may not allow that distinctions be made solely on the basis of the breeding technique, unless a solid scientific justification is provided.

Indeed, apart from being a source of discussion, the definition of NPBTs is also a trade issue, considering that NPBTs are not exclusive to Europe and that this region is a net importer of products that may have been bred following one of these techniques. The effects of any Commission guidance will be deeply felt on international commodity trade. Being a highly sensitive area, trade will surely reflect enhanced commercial exchanges and increased income generation in case of a sound Commission decision, but trade frictions and even possible disputes in case of a poor one.

Many countries across the globe have started to examine NPBTs to determine whether they should be subject to any particular legislation. Most of these reviews are ongoing and it is no secret that, in several cases, governments are awaiting the outcome of the Commission’s work because, as reputed as it is, they intend to align with it. This is a huge responsibility for the EU and the Commission must live up to the expectations of the international community. To secure the good functioning of trade and the full enjoyment of the economic and social benefits accruing from trade flows, COCERAL is working with its global counterpart the International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC) to encourage regulators across the globe to come together on predictable, coherent and harmonised regulatory approaches to NPBTs.

What is your main concern regarding the implementation of these techniques on the ground in the EU?

In Europe, NPBTs are a major economic driver. They do not require outstanding investments and SMEs rely heavily on them, at a time when the EU agricultural industry is experiencing serious constraints and struggles. NPBTs allow EU agricultural products to be competitive in the world markets and confer the EU agri-food chain a key role both in Europe, where it substantially contributes to the domestic GDP and jobs and growth; and in the world, where it contributes to global food security, innovation and scientific progress.

The main concern of COCERAL is that EU decision-makers may end up constructing a regulatory environment that is completely unnecessary and entirely unjustified from a scientific and risk management point of view. COCERAL fears that, by doing so, the EU may be unconsciously shooting itself in the foot, inasmuch as such framework will serve as nothing else than a barrier to innovation and scientific development which will have a very serious negative impact on jobs and growth in the EU.

COCERAL appreciates the need to clarify the regulatory status of NPBTs, but the urgency to do that must not come at the expense of a complete and thorough assessment of all the possible impacts. Shallow analyses and hasty conclusions are poised to sooner rather than later turn against the legitimate interests of consumers and civil society, as well as the public and private sectors, both in the EU and the whole world.

The EU executive has delayed the legal analysis three times now. Why do you think this happened?

NPBTs are a hot topic presently, not only in Europe but also beyond, and the Commission’s work on a legal interpretation has gathered substantial interest. In fact, the Commission has stated that it has received many and very diverse inputs from stakeholders and so it needs sufficient time to carefully assess all the considerations at stake.

As mentioned, COCERAL appreciates the need for a clarification on the regulatory status of NPBTs in the EU, and certainly the forthcoming Commission guidance must be thorough and carefully prepared. COCERAL believes that a complete assessment of all the impacts before the EU makes any decision would be a sensible approach for a wiser way forward. However, part of the EU’s responsibility is to ensure that this process moves forward and remains timely, especially as other jurisdictions proceed.

The US authorities have recently confirmed that certain products obtained through NPBTs and that do not contain foreign DNA are not subject to GM regulations. The EU cannot afford to lag behind.