This article is part of our special report Do new plant breeding techniques have a future in Europe?.
The new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) are a major opportunity to move toward sustainable agriculture and simultaneously ensure food quality for EU consumers, MEP Paolo De Castro told EURACTIV.com.
According to De Castro (S&D), the EU should embrace innovation more and more in order to boost food production and cut the environmental impact of farming.
“In this sense, plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional values or eliminating allergens.”
NPBTs concern a number of scientific methods for the genetic engineering of plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.
Critics say they should fall under the GM legislation while supporters say the methods do not transfer any gene from one plant to another but rather accelerate modifications that could happen in nature and therefore, should not be regulated as GMOs.
A European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling is expected soon on “mutagenesis” method. In theory, the court’s ruling will provide more clarity about the EU policy framework for these techniques.
“NPBTs can be crucial in the challenge to ensure enough, safe and quality food not only to all European consumers but also at the global level,” the Italian politician emphasised.
De Castro said he expected the court decision to encourage innovative and sustainable plant breeding, also in consideration of a similar US decision on the issue.
The socialist MEP insisted that it is mainly a legal decision, as the arguments taken into account are exclusively science-based.
“These techniques simply replicate natural evolution processes and hence cannot be managed – from a legal point of view – in the same way as traditional GMOs.”
This argument, though, is opposed by Greenpeace, which believes that if these techniques were not regulated under the EU’s GMO law, the existing legislation would be insufficient to adequately control the risks they pose to the environment.
Referring to an analysis conducted for the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), Greenpeace claims that existing policies do not guarantee a level of protection comparable to that of the genetic engineering law, neither individually nor collectively.
“Crops that have had their genetic makeup modified through genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR/Cas or ODM clearly fall within the scope of the EU’s GMO law. An exemption from the EU’s GMO law would have no legal basis,” Franziska Achterberg, the food policy director at Greenpeace EU, told EURACTIV.
Achterberg warned that this would mean letting GM crops onto the EU market without risk assessment, consumer labelling or detectability.
“People would find it impossible to know for sure what they are eating and how it was produced. It would impede on the right of breeders, farmers, traders and retailers to go GM-free. The recently acquired right of EU countries to ban GM crops at the national level would also become meaningless.”
This opportunity ‘cannot be missed’
Environmentalist NGOs say the new techniques will also damage farmers by depriving them of their right to seeds and therefore increasing their dependency on multinational companies.
But for De Castro, it is rather the contrary.
“If we do not act now and support this kind of innovation, putting them under the GMO regulation we will put ourselves in the hands of a few multinational companies that already control a major part of the market.”
He said that in a simplified regulatory framework, European farmers, in close connection with universities and research institutes, could take advantage of plant breeding to significantly improve the crops they produce in a natural and sustainable way.
“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 said.
The Italian MEP added that farmers and breeders needed to work together and be increasingly innovative in order to deal with the challenge of food security, namely feeding a growing world population with limited resources and increasingly unforeseeable weather conditions.
“I am convinced that such innovations represent an opportunity we cannot miss to better protect biodiversity and drive a real sustainable intensification of agriculture and food production,” he concluded.