EU plant breeding ‘saved’ millions of hectares of extra farmland: report

Innovation in plant breeding enhanced overall productivity in EU arable farming by 74%. [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

The Pan-European Farmers’ Association (Copa-Cogeca) said on Thursday (28 July) that innovation in plant breeding should be further encouraged in order to help the EU combat hunger and malnutrition worldwide.

In March 2016, HFFA Research GmbH conducted a study focusing on the plant breeding sector’s contribution to EU farming in the last 15 years.

According to the results of the study commissioned by the European Plant Technology Platform, a stakeholder forum for the plant sector that brings together members from industry, academia and the farming community, the EU would have needed 19 million more hectares of farmland to produce the same amount of food with traditional crops.

Copa & Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said, “Innovation in plant breeding counts for a lot, enhancing overall productivity in EU arable farming by 74%.” He added that the EU’s productivity gains could be used to help combat hunger and malnutrition around the world.

The author of the study, Dr. Steffen Noleppa, added that plant breeding in the EU had a positive impact on employment and environmental protection.

“Plant breeders in the EU are currently facing a challenging situation and we need improvements in the regulatory framework to support further development,” Noleppa stressed.

Environment and employment

The study also found that had it not been for innovative plant breeding techniques for the EU’s major arable crops, the bloc’s agricultural acreage would have expanded by more than 19 million hectares in the last 15 years. This would have had an enormous impact on natural habitats and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“A total of about 3.4 billion tons of direct CO2 emissions have been avoided by genetic improvements in major arable crops in the EU in the last 15 years,” the report said, adding that a positive biodiversity effect was also generated.

According to HFFA Research, around 70,000 jobs have been created in the arable sector in the last 15 years, and almost 30% of the annual income of an EU arable farmer is due to plant breeding.

Commenting on the report on Thursday, Pesonen said that the genetic crop improvements in EU arable farming boosted the EU economy by over €14 billion.

But the report warned that EU plant breeders face a challenging policy and regulatory framework.

“They should be encouraged to invest in new breeding technologies instead of being hindered,” the study said. It added that the added value of plant breeding should receive greater recognition and more political support.

New plant breeding techniques

The origins of plant breeding date back thousands of years to the first farmers who picked the best plants to provide seeds for their next crop.

But as technology rapidly advanced, new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) have emerged as another innovation-driven but also controversial solution to ensure food security. The future of new plant breeding techniques in the EU is still unclear.

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EXCLUSIVE / After Europe’s decision to keep its door shut to GMOs, the European Commission is trying its best to avoid opening a new trade row with the United States over how to regulate so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NPBTs).

NPBTs focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering. For the agri-food industry, the plants resulting from these new breeding techniques should not be considered as genetically modified, because no foreign DNA is added to their genes.

To opponents, they are just another attempt to getl GMOs into Europeans through the back door.

According to organic farmers (IFOAM), NPBTs use technology that interferes at the sub-cellular and genomic level and thus should be classified as falling “within the scope of the GMO legislation”.

Organic farmers heat up debate over new plant breeding techniques

Organic farmers have raised the alarm over the potential “severe” economic and environmental consequences of new plant breeding techniques for Europe’s farming sector, calling for GMO legislation to apply when approving new seed traits.

Commission still undecided

The European Commission has several times delayed a legal analysis on whether new plant breeding techniques should be considered GMOs.

Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission Spokesperson today (29 July) again said that the executive was considering the question of plant breeding techniques, but the outcome and the timeline could not be pre-empted for the time being.

In an interview with EURACTIV, Teresa Babuscio, the secretary-general of COCERAL, said that the Commission had received many, diverse inputs from stakeholders and so it needs sufficient time to carefully assess all the considerations at stake.

Trade body: Don't lump 'new plant breeding techniques' in with GMOs

If new plant breeding techniques fall under GMO legislation, SMEs in Europe will be severely hit, Dr Teresa Babuscio said in an interview with

“The US authorities have recently confirmed that certain products obtained through NPBTs and that do not contain foreign DNA are not subject to GM regulations. The EU cannot afford to lag behind,” she warned.

European Technology Platform Executive Manager Dr. Aleksandra Małyska told EURACTIV that taking into consideration the fast pace of technology development, especially NPBTs that significantly increase the speed and precision of plant breeding, European plant scientists and farmers could achieve much more in the future.

“The technological advances in the plant sector have the potential to enable further contributions towards food and nutrition security and increase the harvest of main crops by 76 million tons using innovation in plant breeding by 2030,” she said.

Małyska added that if the EU wants to remain a global leader in plant breeding and agriculture, it should take concrete measures to support “full use of the recent advances and enable technology uptake by European companies”.

Copa-Cogeca sent a letter to Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis on 3 March, urging him to speed up the procedures to clarify the legal status of new breeding techniques.

“We believe that NBTs should be analysed and discussed by experts on a case-by-case basis and according to scientific criteria,” the letter said.

In a joint position paper published in March, environmental NGOs Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Europe, IFOAM EU stressed that the EU GMO law should be fully applied to the so-called ‘new plant breeding techniques’.

“Legal analysis shows that they are covered by EU GMO law. If they were to escape EU regulations, any potential negative effects on food, feed or environmental safety would go unchecked. European consumers, farmers, and breeders would have no way to avoid GMOs.

“The Commission should leave no doubt that all products of genetic engineering are subject to EU GMO law which requires a rigorous risk assessment, detectability, and labelling.”

MEP Jasenko Selimović from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) recently said, "Our population is growing which of course leads to an increased demand for food. In 40 years, we will be around 9 billion people, meaning that we will need to increase the agricultural production with up to 70% to secure food supplies. Plant breeding has a key role to play if we want to meet this challenge.

"Plant breeding is not only crucial for our future food production but it's also an essential tool in combating climate change and to preserve biodiversity […] Many plant breeding companies have unfortunately abandoned their research on modern plant breeding techniques in Europe and moved it to the USA. To be able to compete on a global level and preserve genetic and cultural diversity Europe has to take back this research.”

Copa & Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said on Friday (29 Juy), “I welcome this study  on 'The economic, social and environmental value of plant breeding in the EU' by HFFA Research GmbH which was commissioned by the European Plant Technology Platform of which Copa & Cogeca are members. It shows that innovation in plant breeding counts for a lot, enhancing overall productivity in EU arable farming by 74% to enable the EU to help combat hunger and malnutrition globally.”

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 there is no foreign DNA present in the resulting plants, which might have developed naturally. To opponents, they are just another attempt at selling GMOs to Europeans through the back door.

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

SPECIAL REPORT / 'New plant breeding techniques' focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering. A troubling question for policymakers is whether these techniques should fall under GMO legislation.


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