This article is part of our special report Biotechnology: Europe’s next ‘hot potato’.
It is much easier for larger companies to implement new GM legislation, but it’s the smaller ones that are most affected by the recent gene-editing ruling, the chair of the agriculture committee (AGRI) MEP, Norbert Lins, told EURACTIV.com at the sidelines of a recent plant breeding conference.
His comment was in reference to the July 2018 EU Court decision that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.
When questioned at the event, Lins said he was more interested in working to find a way around the court ruling rather than working out ways to uphold it.
He added that, unlike larger biotech companies, European SMEs do not have the resources to invest or develop their products overseas.
This is a sentiment echoed by speakers at the conference, which focused on a new form of genetic modification, known as ‘new plant breeding techniques’ (NBTs).
The conference, organised by Copa-Cogeca and Euroseeds, repeatedly emphasised how the ruling stands to disproportionately affect SMEs and public research bodies as opposed to large, multinational corporations.
Similarly, socialist MEP Paolo de Castro (S&D) told EURACTIV that the EU court ruling was a “legal drawback” which needs to be solved in light of alarming climate change.
“In this framework, SMEs, small research centres as well as universities, will play a crucial role in the development of new varieties through techniques which are very affordable,” he said.
Citing Italy as an example, he noted there are excellent examples of universities that have developed new varieties of fruit and vegetables able to resist common diseases without the use of any plant protection product.
However, industry and NGOs are at odds over who controls the largest market share of NBTs, and therefore who stands the most to lose as a consequence of the ruling.
The European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) told EURACTIV that SMEs hold the “biggest share of genome-edited organisms ready to offer to the market”.
The biotech industry group says the July Court ruling is an “insurmountable hurdle” for smaller companies and public researchers active in agricultural biotechnology.
They claim that this restrictive regulation is “pushing out” SMEs, encouraging them to instead focus their research efforts on other parts of the world.
Speaking at the conference, the Secretary-General of Euroseeds, Garlich von Essen, concurred, saying that these kind of companies were “the future of seeds” and that prohibitive regulation will “kill seed companies and kill our economy”.
Marien Valstar, a senior policy advisor to the Dutch ministry of agriculture, nature and food quality, added that in the Netherlands, out of the 300 Dutch biotech companies, the vast majority were SMEs and “only very few” are large, multinational companies.
However, the claim that SMEs hold a larger market share of NBT patents is widely refuted by NGOs.
Speaking to EURACTIV on the sidelines of the event, Jan Plagge, president of EU organic farmers (IFOAM EU), said that there are various types of patents and that although larger corporations may not hold as many of the patents for finished products, they do hold the majority of patents for gene-editing techniques.
This, he said, makes it “hard for small and medium enterprises to use this technology” and therefore the argument that “regulation is preventing SMEs from strengthening their innovation and product development is not really valid”.
He added that “four or five” large companies have the largest share of the seed market and that they secured “a lot of licenses and patents on techniques”.
Antonio Onorati from European Coordination Via Campesina told EURACTIV that only six transnational companies dominate the global market for both conventional and GM seeds, four of which are European (Bayer-Monsanto, BASF, Vilmorin, KWS).
Furthermore, results from a recent analysis from TestBioTech, the Institute for Independent Impact Assessment of Biotechnology, concluded that “DowDuPont and Bayer/Monsanto control large parts of the seed market”, adding that “DowDuPont has successfully managed to combine 48 patents on the most basic tools in one patent pool”.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a representative from the German plant breeding company KWS said that in the area of new breeding methods, “there are various types of patents and many patent applications by multinationals, SMEs, and public research institutes alike”.
But the representative added that “it remains to be seen to what extent and in what number patents will be granted for new breeding methods in the future”.
**Gerardo Fortuna contributed to this article
[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Zoran Radosavljevic]