Farmers fear ‘political’ court ruling on plant breeding techniques

New plant breeding techniques modify plant genes to enhance certain traits. [IAEA Imagebank/Flickr]

EU farmers have expressed concerns about an ongoing court case on plant breeding techniques, saying it might end up being a “political” decision that does not take into account scientific and economic arguments.

The European Commission revived the debate on genetic engineering on 28 September, during a meeting on modern biotechnologies in agriculture focusing on New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs). But its stance is still unclear.

The term NPBTs describes a number of scientific methods that genetically engineer plants to enhance traits like drought tolerance and pest resistance.

The debate revolves on whether these techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and should therefore fall under the strict GMO approval process.

The EU defines GMOs as “organisms, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.

Supporters of NPBTs argue that plants obtained through these techniques could also be the product of conventional cross-breeding techniques that mimic natural processes and hence cannot be considered GMOs.

The Netherlands says there is “no need to wait” for EU-wide regulation and would like to push forward the development of NPBTs.

Amsterdam wants to revive talks on new plant breeding techniques

The Netherlands believes the new plant breeding techniques should not come under the GMO legislation as they are as safe as traditional breeding. It also insists that a discussion on the issue should be launched soon, even before the EU Court rules on the issue.

On the other hand, sceptics contest the claim that NPBTs mimic natural processes because the end product could not be obtained naturally. They say there is no knowledge of what happens when combining multiple NPBTs and repeating this over time, hence the precautionary principle should be applied and NPTBs should be regulated under GMO rules.

Playing it safe

In 2016, the EU executive commissioned an up-to-date scientific overview on NPBTs. But the review, published last April, did not take a position on the legal status of NPBTs.

Speaking at an event on 28 September, Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said: “There is no single vision in the EU as to how far we could and should go to reap benefits from the use of human innovative interventions in agriculture.”

He said there is a need for further understanding of NPBTs: “In most science-related issues, people tend to look for ‘black and white’ answers where science is about risk and uncertainty.”

A European Commission spokesperson recently told EURACTIV that the executive’s legal interpretation is expected to facilitate harmonisation of EU member states’ approaches to new breeding techniques. “However, it is the sole prerogative of the European Court of Justice to provide a final and binding opinion on the interpretation of EU law.”

The court case

In 2016, France asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether a variety of herbicide-resistant rapeseed obtained through NPBTs should follow the GMO approval process. The judgment is due in the first half of 2018.

The case concerns one type of NPTBs (mutagenesis) and it is unclear whether the judgment will extend to other NPTBs and what would be the impact of a negative ruling on genetic engineering in general.

It is also being disputed whether EU judges have sufficient scientific understanding to legislate on the matter.

“I fear that the court will make a political decision,” Thor Kofoed, head of seed policy at farmer organisation Copa-Cogeca, told EURACTIV.

“The new mutagenesis technique is a normal and natural breeding technique. I really fear the court will make the decision that mutagenesis is part of the GMO directive. Then we really have a problem because you cannot do anything – you break down the whole industry. And I feel that lawyers don’t understand a thing about biology”, he said.

Speaking at the Commission’s conference, Kofoed stressed that “farmers and breeders need to be increasingly innovative to deal with the challenge of feeding a growing world population with limited resources and increasingly variable weather events, ranging from floods to drought.”

“We need to develop new plant varieties which are for example resistant to water and heat stress, as a way to adapt to climate change, as outlined in the IPCC report on climate change,” he added.

According to Luc Vernet of Farm Europe, an agricultural think tank, for certain NPBTs, “we are on the safe side politically to go forward”, for instance, if no foreign DNA is used.

The American seed manufacturing company DowDuPont voiced confidence that the EU will come around to allow innovation in the field of NPBTs: “We remain confident that European farmers will have access to very important tools like this one”, DowDuPont’s Neal Gutterson told EURACTIV.

But organic farming body IFOAM expressed a different view. Jan Plagge, its vice president, said: “All new genetic engineering techniques should be, without question, considered as techniques of genetic modification leading to GMOs and fall within the scope of the existing legislation on GMOs.

“There are no legal or technical reasons to exclude these techniques from risk assessment, prior authorisation and mandatory traceability and labelling, which apply to current GMOs.”