This article is part of our special report Do new plant breeding techniques have a future in Europe?.
The EU should embrace the new plant breeding techniques as the best chance to supply enough food for the EU’s population, according to mainstream EU farmers. But organic farmers oppose this and a lot may depend on a European court ruling due before the summer.
The relevant European Court of Justice (ECJ) case, dealing with new plant breeding techniques (NPBT), was expected this month but sources recently told EURACTIV it was going to be delayed, probably for June [See background].
An ECJ source explained that the Court’s decision on a case is normally made within 2-4 months after the publication of Advocate General’s opinion, which in this case was last January.
The same source noted that sometimes the process takes longer and there is no firm date yet for this particular case.
Focus on mutation
Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of the biggest farmers’ association in the EU (Copa-Cogeca), highlighted the importance of plant breeding innovation in agriculture and food production in the EU.
He explained that every year farmers are restricted in the use of plant protection products. The lack of approval of new or old plant protection products is a huge problem for farmers who need to produce enough crops and of the required quality.
“The biggest difficulty is the resistance to pesticides that can be a fatal problem for food production as a whole. Some of the pesticides we can learn to replace with alternatives such as mechanical weed control. But for fungal diseases and insect attacks, there are currently no alternatives to pesticides,” Pesonen said.
Copa and Cogeca believes that all plant breeders in the EU must make every effort to embrace faster and better breeding techniques.
“It is crucial that breeders in the EU get access to all the necessary plant breeding technologies (NBT). EU farmers cannot wait for the normal time of 12-15 years that it takes to breed a new variety and with the huge uncertainty that results from conventional processing techniques.”
“NBTs must be used immediately for mutation breeding as it is the plant’s own DNA being worked on and must therefore naturally be excluded from the GMO Directive. By doing this, a new variety where NBT is used for mutation, of course, must only undergo a normal variety testing by CPVR and, of course, can in no way contain any patents at all,” Pesonen emphasised.
He said that if the EU takes this step in spring 2018, we have a chance to supply enough food for the EU’s population.
“It is essential that all breeders have free access to the breeding material so that all small and medium-sized breeders in the EU can freely breed in a free market. We have to divide the discussion between NBTs on mutation and modification. We can take the discussion about NBTs on modifications later on.”
Organic farming ‘under threat’
On the other hand, EU organic farmers (IFOAM EU) firmly oppose the NPBTs. They believe they should clearly fall under the GM scope, otherwise, the organic sector will be dealt a severe blow.
“The organic sector will have to face a situation where genetic modification techniques, excluded from organic farming, could be released into the environment and the food chain but be exempted from any traceability and labelling requirements,” IFOAM noted.
A similar position is shared by the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), a farmers’ organisation that defends farmers’ rights and sustainable farming, which says these new biotechnology-driven techniques were developed by the seed industry to counter consumers’ massive rejection of ‘old GMOs’.
“The name has changed but the sanitary and environmental hazards remain the same,” they said.
The Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) fears that the patents to emerge from these techniques, considered necessary for innovation by the biotech industry, will basically increase the pressure on farmers by making them more dependent on multinational seed corporations.
“Other innovation pathways exist. Many researchers, plant breeders and farmers are collaborating on agro-ecological methods to increase biodiversity in food crops, developing more resilient varieties and promoting food sovereignty. The decisions about the direction in which solutions for our food system are sought and about what research is needed is a political one, and concern society at large,” CEO’s Nina Holland told EURACTIV.
Socialist MEP De Castro recently said that these techniques would improve food quality and help tackle the rising demand for food.
“Intervening on the agronomic and qualitative characteristics of plants will allow us, on the one hand, to decrease the use of chemical and nutritional inputs, thus reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture, and on the other, to improve production efficiency and increase food safety,” De Castro told EURACTIV.
However, Holland explained that food quality can be improved in many different ways but it’s crucial to first restore soils and make food more nutritious, as well as boost the diversity of plants we eat.
“Currently enough food is being produced, however, it is not accessible to all and produced unsustainably. Enormous amounts of food are being wasted or are very inefficiently used to feed intensive livestock industry,” she said adding that food systems should be more focused on the local level.
As for new genetic engineering techniques, she said their proponents are making wild claims about their benefits but it seems that the old herbicide-tolerance trait is still industry’s number one priority.
“Cibus’ oilseed rape, the first product commercialised from a new technique, has been made tolerant to sulfonylurea-based herbicides and BASF has told the media that it expects to develop herbicide-tolerant seeds using Crispr-Cas,” she said, referring to genome editing.
The European Court of Justice is expected to decide soon about the future of the so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) in Europe.
The term describes a number of scientific methods for the genetic engineering of plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.
At issue is whether these techniques should be classed as GMOs and, therefore, fall under the strict GMO approval process.
The agri-food industry and farmers say the EU should open the door to these techniques and help agriculture face challenges like climate change and rising food demand.
On the other hand, environmentalists insist that these techniques are harmful to health and environment and accuse the big agri-food multinationals of trying to bring these “hidden GMOs” in Europe.