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Innovation is complicated by difficult and expensive testing requirements

European Court inhibits new breeding techniques

The European Court ruled on 25 July that new mutation techniques must be assessed under the difficult and expensive testing for GMOs. Plantum, the branch organization for companies in the plant starting material sector, is deeply disappointed about this decision. Certainly for SMEs, Plantum believes that it is impossible to make use of these methods. "The verdict is a missed opportunity to accelerate the contribution of plant breeding to the sustainability of agriculture and horticulture."
The verdict of July 25, following questions from the French Supreme Court, gives the sector long-awaited clarity, but not the clarity that had been hoped for. The judges state that plants, adapted with the new mutation methods should always be regulated as GMO (genetically modified organisms), even when they could logically also have been originated from non-regulated (mutation) methods.

The European GMO Directive includes an exception for mutagenesis, but the Court states that it can only be used for traditional mutation techniques (chemical treatment and radiation). After all, these have a history of safe use.
The new mutation techniques must be regulated as GMO so that a full-fledged risk assessment must take place. Such an assessment might cost between 10 and 100 million euro per adjusted property because of the multitude of tests on human and environmental impacts. This is only an option for the largest arable crops in the world, but is financially unachievable for all other crops.

The judges state that the risks of the new mutation methods are comparable to those of the traditional GMOs (transgenesis). Niels Louwaars: "We believe that with targeted mutations you do less damage to the DNA than with traditional mutations and that the risks are comparable or even smaller. If we have to wait for a history of safe use, that could even take half a century."

Verdict inhibits innovation
The Dutch breeding companies supply many new varieties and crops domestically and abroad. The advantages of these new varieties benefit the entire chain. Consumers, trade, processing and cultivation. Plant breeding provides sustainable solutions for societal challenges and these are badly needed. What can be programmed in the seed does not need to be corrected anymore with, for example, chemical agents, says Niels Louwaars, Director of branch organization Plantum. "Crops selected for their resistance to drought or disease require less irrigation or crop protection. A good-tasting tomato selected for shelf life, limits food waste."

However, plant breeding takes time. It can take 6 to 15 years to cross two parent plants until a better plant variety comes on the market. Over the past 10 years, a number of new methods have been developed that are promising for breeders to be able to develop products faster and more precisely. The latest in the line is CRISP-Cas9, a method that also promises applications in medicine. Now that the methods are not going to be used in Europe this therefore is a missed opportunity, according to Louwaars.
Competition from outside Europe
Europe is not an island and many Dutch breeding companies operate internationally. What will their position be now that the competitors outside Europe are able to use these methods. Are they going to do an important part of their innovative investments abroad? "Closing the borders might also in the long term have an effect on biodiversity. In the future breeders no longer can use plant varieties from outside Europe in their (conventional) breeding because it will usually not be known whether such a specific method of mutation has ever been used. (this cannot be recognized from the plant). Because in that case, crops cultivated in Europe still have to pass through the GMO procedure. This means a huge additional obstacle, especially for traditional breeders and therefore also for farmers and growers, who need new varieties with as much diversity as possible."

Plantum now calls on the government for the continued commitment in Europe for new breeding techniques such as Crispr-Cas9, provided no variety boundaries are exceeded. This is also included in the coalition agreement.

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