This article is part of our special report Do new plant breeding techniques have a future in Europe?.
Labelling products that result from the so-called new plant breeding techniques would provide little new information and would therefore make no sense for consumers, Garlich von Essen, secretary-general of the European Seeds Association (ESA), told EURACTIV.com.
New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is expected soon to decide on whether these techniques would fall under the GM legislation or not.
“Product labelling makes sense only where it gives additional information on the quality or specific characteristics of products. But where products resulting from the latest breeding methods are the same as products resulting from conventional breeding, i.e. are identical as regards their qualities and specific characteristics, such a label would not provide any substantial additional information,” von Essen said.
The biotech industry says no foreign DNA is present in the genes of seeds obtained through NPBT and thus they should not be considered GMOs. On the other hand, environmental NGOs call these techniques “hidden GMOs” and say they should be labelled as such.
Considering that Europe has shut the door to GMOs, the discussion about these techniques has heated up in Brussels ahead of the crucial ECJ ruling.
Von Essen insisted that the legislator introduced labelling requirements for GMO plants only, since these are not only clearly distinguishable from conventional plants by their genetics, but generally require specific additional measures such as post-market monitoring.
He admitted, though, that the debate around plant breeding innovation should be developed and stressed that the seeds industry is working to establish a “reasonable and meaningful information and communication exchange”.
The US recently said it has no 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”.
In the rest of the world, some South American countries have adapted their legislation to the latest developments in plant breeding.
Argentina has legislation in place while Brazil, Colombia and Chile are in the process of establishing it.
According to ESA, these countries are following Argentina’s example, which basically means that they use a case by case or, more precisely, a category-by-category approach.
“They generally follow the principle that products that could have also been produced by conventional breeding methods or occur naturally, e.g. mutagenesis techniques or allele replacement by cis-genesis are not subject to GM regulations,” ESA said.
On the other hand, Nina Holland of the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) noted that without labelling, consumers but also plant breeders, farmers and food processors were losing their ability to make well-informed decisions about the products they use.
She said that the Dutch Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for continued labelling of products of new techniques, even if they get to the market without safety checks.
“But as the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) has argued in its statement on the topic, safety checks must be in place to assess the risks to the environment, human health and animal welfare before products derived from these new techniques are placed on the market or released into the environment. Otherwise, the integrity of, and trust in, the EU food chain will be further at risk.”
Holland said the biotech industry’s spin was focused on creating a distinction between ‘old GMOs’ and products from new GM techniques.
“But current EU GMO rules consider the source of DNA inserted (“foreign” or not) as irrelevant; it is the technique used that matters. New GM techniques like Crispr-Cas, ODM and zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) are different from selection breeding. Off-target effects have to be investigated, such as the question whether the cuts made in the DNA only affect the intended target site or also others,” she noted.
She also referred to a statement by scientist organisation ENSSER, which said these techniques could be used repetitively, or in combination.
“One individual change might seem indistinguishable from one arising in nature, but collectively they can lead to an organism that is entirely different. Also, if these products were really ‘indistinguishable’ from what could occur in nature, this begs the question of why corporations are applying for patents as if they were inventions,” Holland said.
In January, ECJ Advocate General Michal Bobek published his opinion saying that one type of NPBT (mutagenesis) is, in principle, exempted from the obligations in the GMO directive. His opinions are not binding, but are rarely ignored by the Court.
The European Commission has said it expects “important clarity” on the GM scope from the ECJ decision. However, the current court case refers to mutagenesis only.
But for ESA, when the Advocate General provides a differentiated view on the products resulting from mutagenesis, he builds different categories.
“We feel that with this differentiation he is quite in line with the basic principle that also we as the breeding sector see as decisive: a product that could also have been produced by conventional breeding methods or by nature itself should not be regulated as GMO,” Von Essen said.
He added that if the Court follows the Advocate General in this principle, which is laid down in the GMO definition of the directive, this can also be applied to products resulting from other new breeding methods.
“This should then help the Commission, and most importantly the member states and their respective authorities, to apply this principle also for plants resulting from other new breeding methods.”
The next CAP
According to ESA, the NPBTs will also have a crucial role to play in the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) objectives, considering that it will focus on environmental objectives, reducing the impact of agriculture and requiring farmers to deliver also on public goods.
The EU executive is expected to present its proposals on the next CAP in the coming weeks.
Mitigating the environmental impact of EU farming will take centre stage in the next CAP and for this reason, ESA says the EU agriculture’s economic competitiveness should be further strengthened.
“Excellence in agricultural research and applying the results will be decisive to achieve both, the economic and societal objectives […] the latest breeding methods definitely have huge potential to contribute to these ends, e.g. by more quickly providing varieties with improved pest or disease resistance,” Von Essen concluded.