Controversy over new plant breeding methods

Is it possible to have genetic modification without risks and side effects? [shutterstock/Natali-Mis]

New methods of genetic engineering in plants promise precise interventions, without the use of foreign DNA or side effects. However, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) still considers these plants as genetically modified, which is why they are tightly regulated in the EU. The judgement is being fiercely debated. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Although there is no general ban on genetically modified plants in the EU, they are subject to strict rules. Mandatory risk assessments, extensive authorisation procedures and labelling obligations are high hurdles to pass.

This is why hardly any genetically modified plants make it to growing in fields. So far, so good, as tight regulation of “green genetic engineering” reflects public opinion and there is a fast-growing market for organic food.

However, a new debate has broken out over “genome editing” (mutagenesis) methods. Supporters say that this methods allow for any mutations to occur in a targeted way. These mutations occur randomly thousands of times every day as natural processes, for instance from sunlight.

Genome editing’s great promise

The promises made by researchers are big ones. For example, they say they will ensure that apples will turn brown later and will therefore be thrown away less often. Moreover, they could grow soybeans producing oils that can later withstand high temperatures, without forming trans-fats.

In the context of last summer, plants that are resistant to droughts are particularly popular among farmers. Genome editing methods make all of this possible.

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Many scientists, farmers and politicians, like Kees de Vries, see an enormous potential in this.

“For Germany and Europe as a base of knowledge, using the new breeding technologies means promising opportunities, particularly in the area of agricultural crops. It is therefore essential that we aren’t left behind in this important future market,” said the politician from the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), who participated in a discussion on this topic organised by EURACTIV Germany on Thursday (13 December).

There is also concern about falling behind in the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), after the CJEU rebuffed genome editing in July and considered that the new methods also constituted “genetic manipulation,” which is subject to the existing regulation.

“The CJEU has found that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO directive, because, through the procedures and methods of the mutagenesis, a modification of an organism’s genetic material is made in a way that is not naturally possible,” the reasons for the judgement stated.

Europe was at risk of being left behind by other world regions, the DBV commented. “This judgement blocks the opportunities required for us to meet the challenges of climate change using plant breeding,” criticised the president of the DBV Joachim Rukwied.

There is also dissatisfaction with the judgement in the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

“It’s important to me that the judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union is carefully considered. Protection for the health of consumers is the highest priority in this. At the same time, I want to keep open the perspective for developments and innovations,” said the German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner.

She added that the new breeding technologies were already being used or were essential to ensuring adequate supplies, for instance with cereals.

“I see clear challenges: on the one hand, we want use fewer plant protection products. On the other, we want the same harvests,” Klöckner said.

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“We would need other options in order to do this – for example, species which are resistant to pests or droughts. I would like to move this discussion forward in Europe, together with the European Commission and the member states,” she added.

Ecological alternatives in plant breeding

On the other hand, the CJEU is gaining support from environmental activists and organic farmers.

For instance, Barbara Maria Rudolf from the association Saat:gut e.V. – which is dedicated to ecological plant breeding – argued that genome editing was clearly genetic modification and therefore had to be regulated accordingly. She added that it was crucial that there was a shift away from the ecosystems we live in.

Moreover, Rudolf, who also participated in EURACTIV Germany’s discussion on 13 December, said that ecological plant breeding offered good alternatives and these methods respected plants’ life cycles.

Rudolf added that genetic variability was generated by cross-breeding sexually mature plants, so that the desired characteristics could be produced over the course of several years.

Rudolf did not want to believe the promises made by supporters of genome editing. After all, all experience so far has shown that genetic engineering only produces patented species and farmers are then brought to their knees with horrendous licence requirements and made dependent on large seed companies. Rudolf added that this was a risk to food security and biodiversity.

So, the passionate and extremely controversial debate has not been settled with the CJEU’s judgement. The court is only able to interpret what has previously been adopted by the legislators. For now, the judgement has created legal certainty and this is greeted by many interest groups.

However, this cannot replace the political debate. Modern genetic engineering methods will continue to increasingly occupy Europe’s agricultural politicians, even after the judgement from Luxembourg.

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