In a recently-published position paper, IFOAM EU called on the European Commission to class a number of new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs), including reverse breeding, most agro-infiltration, meganucleases, cisgenesis, grafting onto a transgene rootstock, and others as genetic modification under Directive 2001/18/EC.
IFOAM EU said exclusions in the directive governing GM techniques are only designed to cover long-standing techniques used at the time the directive was issued and which had a long safety record. It says they do not apply to new plant breeding techniques which have been developed subsequently.
“None of the techniques listed above have gone beyond the experimental stage, and their use in other parts of the world is extremely recent and has not been subject to any risk assessment. Therefore, none of the above techniques can claim to have a ‘long safety record’,” said IFOAM EU’s paper.
No exemption from risk assessment
The Battle Ground
The list of new plant breeding techniques:
- Oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM)
- Zinc finger nuclease technology types I to III (ZFN-I, ZFN-II, ZFN-III)
- Grafting on a transgene rootstock
- RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM)
- Reverse Breeding
- Synthetic Genomics
Christopher Stopes, president of IFOAM EU, said: “New techniques bearing the same potential risks as the GMOs currently on the market should not be used in organic farming nor released into the environment, even less be exempted from risk assessment and traceability.”
Louise Payton, policy officer at the Soil Association, said: “The majority of independent scientific opinion in the EU seems to take the view that 'gene editing' does have the same potential for unexpected and unforeseeable disruption to the genome, and thus similar risks, as other GM technologies.”
But Garlich Von Essen, secretary general of the European Seed Association (ESA), believes IFOAM EU’s demands are an oversimplified reaction, and classification of all new plant breeding techniques under discussion as GM could cause major problems for Europe’s agricultural and biotechnology sectors.
“To me IFOAM’s reaction is a bit of a Pavlov’s dog reflex. If you dig a bit deeper and look at the broad consensus in the scientific community, you see that people look at these techniques in a differentiated way,” said Von Essen
He said there was consensus that cisgenesis, zinc finger III and grafting onto a GM rootstock should be classed as GM techniques. But he claimed there was also consensus that reverse-breeding and agro-infiltration were not GM, and a majority of scientists believed the others were also not GM.
Von Essen said if the Commission classed new plant breeding techniques as GM, the impact would be significant: “But it’s an impact that would not be felt in a single blow. It’s something that would have an impact over a considerable period of time – I would guess around 20, 30 years – because this is something that, as far as I can tell, is the future. This is what will drive plant breeding innovation for the next quarter of a century.”
He suggested costs to authorise a product in Europe could rise to between €30-50m, with a risk at the end that the product would not be authorised – a process which would put off almost all companies. He also said labelling requirements would make authorising food products impractical, reducing the market only to animal feed, and only for very large-scale crops.
Is IFOAM hardening its biotech stance?
IFOAM EU’s position on the subject seems to have hardened since last year, when Stopes suggested there should be a distinction between genetic modification on the one hand, and the introduction of genes from other species – which was incompatible with organic principles.
When asked about this, IFOAM EU policy manager Eric Gall said he was not aware of any current genetic modification technique that was compatible with organic production.
He added: “The organic sector is not against biotechnologies per se, and the field is indeed much larger than genetic engineering or genetic modification. There is always an ongoing debate in the organic movement on all aspects of organic standards.”