The European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) welcomes the ongoing European Commission (EC) study on new genomic techniques (NGTs). These are defined as techniques capable of changing the genetic material of an organism, which have emerged or have been developed since 2001. In this statement, EPSO refers specifically to genome editing leading via mutagenesis (point mutations or other modifications existing in nature) in plants and products obtained thereby.
EPSO members remarked that the implementation of GMO legislation with regard to NGTs did not cause any major technical obstacles, but represents a major administrative and financial burden, leads to increasing space constraints in GMO facilities, drastically reduces the number of field experiments, causes problems with the status of incoming germplasm, and has a negative impact on funding and on bringing products to the market.
Despite these constraints, fundamental and applied research on NGTs and NGT products is still blooming in Europe and concerns over 50 plant species. Although the ECJ ruling of 2018 led to widespread demotivation and reduced funding, efforts continue to increase the range of species and of genotypes in which NGTs can be applied, to further enrich the binding and/or cutting features of Cas9-like enzymes, and to generate the knowledge needed to improve traits by NGTs. A research gap exists in the comparison of NGTs to older techniques with a history of safe use.
NGTs and NGT products present numerous benefits and opportunities since they are a tool of choice to address major challenges to agriculture in Europe and worldwide, such as the overuse of pesticides and inputs, climate change, crop monocultures, and the desire for improved food and feed. NGTs can contribute to meeting and managing these challenges by enhancing genetic progress towards more diverse, better adapted, and yet high-yielding plant varieties.
EPSO did not note any specific concerns on NGTs or NGT products but identified obvious challenges. The detection of NGTs in foreign germplasm and products is not feasible, SMEs are not able to play a notable role due to the high cost of licence fees and of regulatory approval, and patents on NGTs and NGT traits raise questions on access to NGT technology and its coexistence with plant variety rights. Safety concerns should not differ from those relevant to plants obtained using methods with a history of safe use, because NGT mutations could also arise in nature or during conventional breeding programs. Off-target events can easily be reduced to a level similar to that of spontaneous mutations occurring during natural plant reproduction in conventional breeding.
The real question on ethical aspects is not whether NGTs or NGT products as such are acceptable, but whether the use we make of them supports commonly accepted values and avoids harm to humans and the environment. It would be ethically problematic to reject NGTs having beneficial traits, provided they are not considered to pose a higher risk to humans or the environment than similar varieties developed by conventional methods.
With regard to consumers’ right for information and freedom of choice, EPSO is opposed to obligatory labelling because it implies that NGT products as such are harmful or problematic, could not be enforced, and would lead to both labelling and non-labelling of identical products. Voluntary labelling has the advantage of giving voice to different types of values, maintaining information levels equal to all actors, and taking into account various lifestyle choices.
NGTs and NGT-products have a role to play in the European Farm-to-Fork strategy by ensuring sustainable food production and the shift to healthy, sustainable diets, for example through disease resistant crops, reducing pesticide use, and allergen-free food that promotes human health. They can also contribute to implement the European Biodiversity strategy by improving the performance and nutritional content of underutilised fruit, vegetable and cereal crops and thereby substantially increase diversity of cultivated crops.
- Peter Rogowsky, INRAE, FR & EPSO AgT WG chair
- Frank Hartung & Ralf Wilhelm, Julius Kühn-Institute (JKI), DE & EPSO AgT WG chairs
- Karin Metzlaff, EPSO, BE