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.
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”.
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.
“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.