Commission to decide on new plant breeding techniques within three months

IAEA Plant Breeding staff working at Seibersdorf. [IAEA/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / A legal analysis of whether new plant breeding techniques should fall under EU GMO legislation will be completed by the first quarter of 2016, a European Commission spokesperson has told EURACTIV.

New breeding techniques (NBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering.

They are seen as a promising new field for the agri-food sector and “are even necessary to meet the challenges of global changes such as population growth and climate change”, according to a report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EU executive’s in-house scientific body meant to inform policymaking.

Backers of the technology say NBTs should not be considered as GMOs because no foreign DNA is present in the resulting plants, which might have developped naturally. To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.

>>Read: New plant breeding techniques: Innovation breakthrough or GMOs in disguise?

The opinion was due by the end of 2015, but the procedure has been delayed.

Currently, there is no commercial usage of NBTs. However, many organisations worldwide use them in their research, and first commercial products have already reached the market, for instance in North America.

ECJ has the last say

“The Commission intends to complete the legal analysis on new breeding techniques by the first quarter of 2016,” an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV.

The EU official noted, though, that before being adopted by the executive, the legal interpretation would be presented to member states and stakeholders.

“Representatives from the European Parliament will be also invited. However a specific date for this presentation has not been scheduled yet,” the EU official added.

The spokesperson continued, saying that the European Commission’s legal interpretation was expected to facilitate the harmonisation of member state approaches to new breeding techniques.

“However it is the sole prerogative of the European Court of Justice to provide a final and binding opinion on the interpretation of EU law.”

Europe “leader” in NBT research

NBT Platform, a coalition of SMEs, large industry and prominent academic and research institutes specialised in new breeding techniques for plants, told EURACTIV that Europe was leading the world’s research on NBTs.

The Chairman of NBT Platform, Edwin Hecker, said that the European plant breeding industry was a world leader in terms of innovation representing a market value of around €8.6 billion.

“Of the more than 7000 companies in the EU seed sector, a significant portion (in some member states up to 90%) are SMEs […] until today most of the world’s research (46%) on NBTs was done in Europe,” Hecker told EURACTIV.

He added that the European plant breeding sector accounted for nearly 50% of all global research on NBTs, which could be attributed to the fact that plant breeding companies are highly research intensive, and between 10 to 25% of their revenues are invested in R&D.

The peril

Hecker warned, though, about the consequences of a negative opinion on NBTs.

“Since many of these companies depend heavily on NBTs to remain profitable, only the biggest companies can afford to relocate their laboratories and R&D centers abroad in case NBTs would fall under the scope of the Directive 200/18/EC,” he underlined.

As a consequence, according to Hecker, it is likely that many SMEs will not be able to withstand the competition of foreign enterprises and “will have to abandon all activities, with important implication on jobs, R&D and economic growth”.

“With an average R&D investment level of 10% per year, the total R&D investment value is estimated at around €860 million per year. A loss of 30% of the R&D in the EU would mean a loss in investment in high level equipment and jobs amounting to €258 million,” he concluded. 

French MEP from the Green Party, José Bové, recently told EURACTIV that the EU executive’s ultimate decision was as much political as it was legal or technical.

“By limiting the debate strictly to the technical aspects […] attention is being deflected from the problem in order to avoid a truly democratic debate on the development of these techniques and their consequences for health and the environment, and thus spare the seed companies a repeat of the difficulty they experienced over GMOs."

  • By the end of March 2016: Commission to launch its legal analysis on new breeding techniques

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