EU farmers: US overtakes Europe in plant breeding innovation

US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: "With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present." [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

European farmers warned EU policymakers on 10 April to take immediate action and encourage innovative new plant breeding techniques following the US decision not to regulate them.

“If we don’t act now, we will put ourselves in the hands of a few multinational American companies. EU farmers and their cooperatives will not accept it,” said Thor Gunnar Kofoed from EU farmers association Copa and Cogeca.

According to Kofoed, the EU has the largest number of plant breeders in the world but they are faced with a challenging policy and regulatory framework.

“They need to be encouraged to invest in new breeding technologies instead of being held back,” he insisted.

On 28 March, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a statement regarding the state-of-play of the so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs).

The term NPBTs describes a number of scientific methods that enhance plant traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance through genetic engineering.

The debate revolves around whether these techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and should, therefore, fall under the strict GMO approval process.

Supporters of NPBTs argue that plants obtained through these techniques could also be the product of conventional cross-breeding techniques that mimic natural processes and hence cannot be considered GMOs.

On the other hand, critics suggest it’s another attempt to bring GMO products in the EU market through the back door.

The statement noted that the USDA “does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests”.

“With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue pointed out, adding that “plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens”.

At EU level, a court ruling expected in May will likely determine the European Commission’s stance on the issue.

In January, European Court of Justice Advocate General Michal Bobek published his opinion, which is not binding but rarely ignored by the Court, saying that one type of NPBT (mutagenesis) is, in principle, exempted from the obligations in the GMO directive.

The court ruling on mutagenesis is not certain that will be extended to other breeding techniques but the EU executive hopes “important” clarity on the scope of GMO legislation.

Commission expects clarity on GM scope from court ruling on plant breeding techniques

The European Commission expects “important” clarity on the scope of GMO legislation ahead of a Court ruling on new plant breeding techniques, an EU spokesperson told following the release of an Advocate General’s first opinion.

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