You probably haven’t heard of them – unless you’re a plant breeding researcher, an anti-GMO activist or work in the seed industry – but they’re the new kids on the block desperately trying to fit in. They’re collectively called new (plant) breeding techniques (NBTs) which is just a technical name introduced by the European Commission.[i] Germany, Sweden, Italy, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Finland and even France have all showed signs of welcome. But environmental NGOs saw in them a familiar pattern – a three letter abbreviation of biotechnology methods that adapt plants to better suit our/farmer’s needs – and immediately opposed them. New technology takes time to regulate, the uncertainty hinders investment in R&D, and green groups take advantage of this vacuum to spread confusion.
The Commission still hasn’t officially announced its opinion and is expected to publish its guidance document on the regulatory status of NBTs by the end of 2016. Originally planned for 2015, the guidance aims to facilitate the interpretation of the EU GMO definition and advise whether or not any of the NBTs should fall under the scope of the existing EU GMO legislation. It is eagerly anticipated by plant researchers, seed breeders and farmers whose work is threatened by the current legal uncertainty. In contrast, the US regulator – which is reviewing each product created by NBTs on a case-by-case basis – has already deregulated several techniques, thus bringing crops such as non-browning white mushrooms and herbicide tolerant flax closer to the market. The Chinese Academy of Sciences produced fungus-resistant wheat – a big accomplishment considering the importance of the crop and the damaging impact of the disease. Using TALENs and CRISPR genome editing tools the researchers enhanced resistance against the mildew fungus without inserting any foreign genes.[ii] The potential for the consumer doesn’t stop there: NBTs can improve nutritional characteristics of crops, reduce allergens, and increase shelf-life. All of this could be achieved by small-sized seed breeding companies, if the regulatory status is favourable for them.
Meanwhile in Europe, the Commission mulls over the regulation of NBTs striving to ensure that the guiding interpretation is accepted by all sides of the debate. From a purely technical discussion it has become a political issue. It is a very scientific dossier and the details are difficult to understand by non-experts. Luckily, the EU has a long list of scientific experts who provide excellent scientific advice – from the Joint Research Center (JRC) to the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). Nevertheless, MEPs felt the need to jump in and discuss breeding techniques such as RNA-dependent DNA methylation, Oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis and site-directed nuclease technology at parliamentary debates. They organised two public hearings on NBTs in the past six months. The JRC, along with a number of other scientific institutes[iii], have already concluded that the products of most of the NBTs cannot be distinguished from conventional plants (unlike GMOs) and have recognised their agricultural benefits.
One thing is clear: European jobs are at stake. The 7,200 companies in the European seed sector – most of which are SMEs – employ 50,000 people and Europe has huge potential to increase its seed exports, which are extremely valuable. Some of the world’s most renowned plant breeding research centres such as the Wageningen University, the Rothamsted Research Center, and the John Inness Center are based in Europe. They all hope that the product of their work does not fall under the strict GMO regulation – if it does, the results of their research could be banned in the 19 EU Members States that have already restricted cultivation of GM crops on their territory.
The governments of some of these member states – namely Germany, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands and France – have already declared their support of NBTs.[iv] Even the organic industry has recognised the benefits of the new techniques for organic farmers. One of the most renowned organic researchers – the director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) headquartered in Switzerland – said, “CRISPR/CAS has great potential. It has risks like any technology and can be used incorrectly. You should assess each application individually instead of rejecting this technology generally. Already today I know of applications that make sense.”[v]
While support for NBTs is mounting, it is the Commission along with the Court of Justice of the EU that will ultimately decide the fate of plant breeding innovation in Europe. It is important to have a satisfactory regulation, but this issue is sitting with the EU institutions since 2007 – almost a decade without resolution. How does this fit the idea of “better regulation”?
Mariana Varbanova is Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting in Brussels.
[i] For more information on each NBT see the Fact Series of the VIB – Flemish life sciences research institute. From plant to crop: The past, present and future of plant breeding (2016).
[ii] D. Talbot. Chinese Researchers Stop Wheat Disease with Gene Editing. MIT Technology Review (2014).
[iii] JRC New plant breeding techniques State-of-the-art and prospects for commercial development (2011); Statement of the German National Science Academy Leopoldina (2015); Decision by the Swedish Board of Agriculture (2015);
[iv] LaBiotech.eu. Italy Bets on Agriculture and Invests €21M in Sustainable-Biotech (2016). German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). Opinion on the legal classification of New Plant Breeding Techniques, in particular ODM and CRISPR-Cas9 (2015).