Andriukaitis: Europe should take lead in science-based plant innovation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Vytenis Andriukaitis: "Plant breeding is essential to meet new challenges and cater for changing needs." [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The EU is leading the science-based fight against climate change and will also lead on science-based plant innovation, writes former EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Andriukaitis is former Commissioner responsible for health and food safety. He wrote this op-ed exclusively for EURACTIV.com.

Plant breeding has been practiced by humans since almost the beginning of our civilisation. We have been experimenting with different species and plant varieties, with some impressive results. We bred corn from teosinte and strawberries from wild berries.

Natural selection and artificial methods have been used to create desired mutations and get an improved breed.

Now, we found a faster way to breed, mix and produce better varieties – via gene engineering. This could sound like a success story, right? Alas, a tide of suspicion and fear pushed these innovations outside the EU.

The hard work of our scientists has brought benefits in other countries where innovation is not synonymous with fear. In addition, what’s even sadder is that the stringent regulatory process has become so cumbersome that it has eliminated the European SMEs from this field of science: only big, mainly foreign, multinationals are able to overcome the hurdles and make a profit.

So are we at yet at another innovation crossroad? Probably. With climate change and a growing world population, food security has become a key concern. Global food production is already under huge pressure.

There are concerns that crop yields are stagnating in Europe and they are predicted to decrease further due to the changing climate conditions, including for some main cereal crops.

I can also list here the degradation of soil health, the overuse of pesticides, the need to preserve biodiversity and pollinators. Therefore, can we really afford ruling out NBTs completely?

I feel we need to rethink this.

We urgently need to improve plant varieties to make them more resistant to diseases, as well as other abiotic and biotic stresses. This includes making them more tolerant to drought or flooding, nutritionally enhanced and completely safe.

We need innovation for this. The EU should be leading in this area. At the pace at which the world is changing, we don’t have the luxury to rely on natural selection only. If we are not able to change and embrace innovation, we, Europe, will become a museum of agriculture.

Plant breeding is essential to meet new challenges and cater to changing needs. We need plant breeding that is internationally competitive and we need to promote innovative, accessible technologies and approaches.

Most importantly, this includes making it accessible to small private and public organisations. It is possible to find avenues that guarantee the high level of safety and strong protection of biodiversity while not depriving us of innovation.

It goes without saying that there are numerous visions in the EU for that. Innovative breeding techniques are one example which supports positive progress. They are particularly interesting because of their potential to introduce useful targeted traits in plants without introducing foreign genes.

The most prominent and rapidly evolving techniques include targeted mutagenesis, also referred to as “gene-editing” techniques. They show great potential for a broad range of applications in the agri-food sector (e.g. to improve drought tolerance and fatty acid composition in soybean, disease resistance and reduced browning in potatoes, improved growth and feed conversion in fish).

They can also be valuable when applied to the health sector (in gene therapy and for studies of disease mechanisms). These techniques allow us to progress much faster – developing new breeds in just two or three years compared to classical techniques which might take more than 10 years.

Debate on new breeding techniques is intense and emotional, often based on scare and risk mongering. Often the NBTs are dubbed by their opponents as the “new GMOs” with (unscientific!) concerns over their safety or simply rejected in the European agriculture, be it for ethical or other reasons.

I guess this is clearly signalling that we need a serious debate about this, with facts on the table and an open discussion.

The Court of Justice of the EU stated in July 2018 that the current legislation on the deliberate release of GMOs applies to organisms obtained by new mutagenesis techniques.

In the same year, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors — which provides independent advice to the European Commission — issued a statement in October, following the court ruling.

It said that new scientific knowledge and technical developments mean that existing GMO legislation is no longer fit for purpose and requires revision. It urges a more inclusive discussion on how we want our food produced in the EU. I agree with these conclusions.

The debate has also extensively engaged the scientific community. Many scientists believe that products obtained through new breeding techniques should not be subject to the legislation governing GMOs, stressing in particular that EU farmers and breeders, especially SMEs, will not benefit from scientific progress and improved varieties.

It is now a well-known fact that I have been defending a strong position in this debate in recent months. Speaking at a Citizens’ Dialogue in Italy last autumn, I made it clear that we need to invest money, time and resources in the new agricultural technologies.

Europe simply cannot afford to give up and stay on the side of the road while our main competitors are making progress!

Scientific facts speak for themselves. We know that these new breeding techniques can help us tackle key challenges such as food security and food intolerances. The potential seems endless, from improved agronomical characteristics to a reduction of the pesticide and herbicide use.

Let’s take the example of low-gluten, non-transgenic wheat – which could be used to produce low-gluten food materials. This kind of wheat has recently been developed by researchers from Spain and the US thanks to a gene-editing technique.

Potatoes developed with a non-browning trait and producing less asparagine constitute another good example. They provide great potential for reducing the formation of acrylamide by 60-70% when potatoes are baked, fried or roasted at high temperatures.

Other outcomes may help us fight plant diseases such as Xylella, pinewood nematode, and others.

I am a medical doctor; it is evident to me that research and innovation can bring important benefits to society. Science must be central when it comes to assessing the risks and benefits for humans, animal health and the environment.

At the same time, we also need to take a broader perspective and engage in dialogue with all sectors of our society; we need to listen to those who express concerns and often worries about these scientific developments. The topic is important and of general interest, therefore we have to address public concerns, especially regarding ethical values.

This debate will probably continue for years and rightly so, because science will evolve and we will have to face new challenges. But we shouldn’t close it down.

We should continue talking, in full transparency, avoiding biased views and stay open to each other’s opinions and concerns. Yet this talk should not be at the expense of science and innovation. It is also important to agree that progress is possible only if it is based on transparent science. Transparency, ethics in science is key and it is for us all to foster it.

The EU is leading the science-based fight against climate change. We shall also lead on science-based plant innovation.

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