Seed World

Cracking the Tombstone – Did Common Sense Prevail?

Lo and behold, the long-awaited draft regulation for new genomic techniques (NGTs) is out. On the 5th of July 2023, almost five years after we thought the European Court of Justice carried EU plant breeding innovation to the grave, the EU Commission published its proposal for this regulation. We now have at least an idea of where we’re heading on this contentious topic.

The EU Commission’s proposal on NGTs wants to group plants developed through NGTs into two different categories. All NGT plants need to undergo a verification process to test if they meet the equivalence criteria to be dubbed “conventional-like” plants, i.e.: plants that could also result from older breeding methods or natural processes. These are Category 1 plants. If NGT plants do not meet those criteria, they are Category 2 and will be considered GMOs and authorized under an adapted GMO risk assessment procedure.

In my opinion, it is fully justified and long overdue to separate the conventional-like NGTs from the extremely cumbersome approval requirements of transgenic GMOs. But, as always, the requirements need to be based on sound science. The regulatory framework needs to be tailor-made to the different profiles of these plants. It is imperative that the verification procedure is efficient and based on scientific criteria to make sure that we end up with a simple administrative process.

With the massive challenges ahead (climate change, population growth, urbanization, changing diets, and others), we will need to enable and encourage the development of NGT plant varieties by all breeders, small and large, from both the public and private sectors. Europe is known for its diverse breeding sector, and we will need to empower all actors in finding solutions.

Unfortunately, there are several inconsistencies in the proposal. One of them is that the “conventional-like” NGT plants would still face specific requirements different from those for plants resulting from conventional breeding including their prohibition for organic farming and specific seed bag labelling.

If you ask me, these components of the proposal don’t make any sense. Already by the name “conventional-like”, the proposal indicates that these varieties are similar to what can be achieved via current ‘conventional’ plant breeding methods. By separating them and forbidding their use to organic farmers, a regulation would prevent a decent chunk of farmers from using the best germplasm. I know that there are organic farmers out there who would love to use the best and newest varieties on their farm and are thoroughly unhappy about this discrimination. Shouldn’t it be up to each farmer to be able to choose which varieties fit best with her or his production system?

If you expect changes now, hold your horses; we’re not there yet. There are still several snags ahead. One of them is that this text by the EU Commission is ‘merely’ a proposal. A few other bodies need to review it before we will see any new Regulation. First, the European Parliament will need to discuss it, followed by the European Council. The goal is to achieve a text that is approved by all three bodies. This will take a considerable amount of time and effort. Seeing that the EU elections are in June 2024, it is pretty challenging and needs strong political commitment to advance on this proposal before then.

There is also a huge risk that this (again) becomes politicised. As with other dossiers, the NGO’s will likely make the regulatory process so incredibly complex and, as such, so incredibly expensive that only those with the deepest pockets will be able to afford to create new and better varieties with gene-editing. Isn’t it better to have a wide variety of organizations that can help mitigate climate change and population increase by creating better and climate-proof varieties? My advice is: let’s make sure they can, and let’s not block this opportunity. We need all the help we can get.