This article is part of our special report The EU future of new plant breeding techniques.
A number of breeding companies have promised to relocate their advanced mutagenesis breeding programmes outside Europe and others will follow if nothing is done to change EU rules, Garlich von Essen, the secretary-general of the European Seed Association (ESA), told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
“They will have to in order to remain at the cutting edge of technology, attract the best breeders and develop the advanced plant varieties we all want to see,” von Essen added.
New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) emerged as an innovative agricultural solution in the last decade, allowing the development of new plant varieties by modifying the DNA of seeds and plant cells.
In July 2018, however, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, or gene editing, plant breeding technique are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
The court ruling sparked intense debate. The industry and farmers said the decision would deal a severe blow to the competitiveness of the EU farming sector while environmentalists hailed it as a victory, saying “hidden GMOs” were being prevented from entering Europe through the back door.
But for von Essen, this is not the case for farmers. “Europe’s farmers and smaller breeding companies do not have the luxury to put part of their R&D as well as production outside the EU to make use of or access these new seed products. Their choice will be reduced and their choice will be restricted.”
The ESA boss insisted that farmers would face an “innovation delay”, which will inevitably hurt their competitiveness.
“Farmers expect from the EU Commission to give them access to the same innovative tools as their competitors in other parts of the world,” he said.
Von Essen said if one looks at the science in other parts of the world, the EU Court ruling had created “another pretty fine mess” for Europe.
“And that is being increasingly recognised. Right after the ruling, the Commission stated that it was now up to member states to implement the ruling and that it did not see a need for any further action,” he said.
“Meanwhile, we have the European Scientific Advice Mechanism and the JRC telling the Commission that this is actually impossible to do and to look into options to revise the respective rules to properly differentiate between methods and resulting products,” he added.
An EU source recently told EURACTIV that a group of member states, led by the Netherlands and Estonia, have requested a common EU approach on gene editing and called for a revision of EU GMO rules to be added to the working programme of the next European Commission.
“The pressure on the EU will be growing as more and more countries around the world take a different approach and will probably see the EU’s approach as a protectionist one that blocks market access and trade,” Von Essen said.
What is the proper framework?
For Petra Jorasch, Manager Plant Breeding and Innovation Advocacy at ESA, the EU court ruling does not reflect the biological facts and scientific advances of plant breeding.
“A workable regulatory framework needs to be able to distinguish between regulated products and those that are exempted from a specific regulation,” she said, adding that this is not the case for plants resulting from the latest mutagenesis methods.
“These plants are in most cases indistinguishable from plants resulting from conventional breeding,” she said.
For ESA, the GM directive should be amended and exclude products of old and new mutagenesis breeding from its definition so that they fall under the regular regulation for conventional plant varieties.
“Such an approach will align the EU’s policy and rules with those established and being developed in the rest of the world,” Jorasch concluded.