Plant breeding is an ancient practice used to create new plant varieties from existing varieties to obtain qualities such as higher yields, enhanced nutrition or better resistance to disease.
Nowadays, thanks to advances in biotechnology, new plant varieties can be developed faster and in a more precise manner by editing their genetic structure.
In the EU, all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) currently fall under the GMO legislation from 2001. However, plant-breeding techniques have evolved greatly over the last two decades. New genomic techniques (NGTs) allow more targeted, precise and faster results than more traditional methods.
What are new genomic techniques?
New genomic techniques are ways to breed plants by introducing specific changes to the DNA.
In many cases, these techniques do not require the use of foreign genetic material from species that could not naturally crossbreed. This means that similar results could be achieved via traditional methods, such as hybridisation, but the process would take much longer.
NGTs could help to develop new plants that are more resilient to drought or other climate extremes or that require fewer fertilisers or pesticides.
GMOs in the EU
GMOs are organisms with genes that have been altered in a way that could not naturally occur through breeding, often by using the genome of another species.
Before any GMO product can be placed on the EU market, it needs to go through a very high-level safety check. There are also strict rules on their authorisation, risk assessment, labelling and traceability.
New EU rules
In July 2023, the European Commission proposed a new regulation on plants produced by certain new genomic techniques. The proposal would allow an easier authorisation for those NGT plants that are considered equivalent to conventional plants. No foreign genetic material from a species not able to naturally crossbreed is used to obtain these NGT plants.
Other NGT plants would still have to follow stricter requirements similar to those under the current GMO rules.
NGT plants would remain prohibited in organic production and their seeds would need to be clearly labelled to ensure farmers know what they are growing.
Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee adopted its position on the Commission proposal on 24 January 2024. Committee members supported the new rules and agreed that NGT plants that are comparable to naturally occurring varieties should be exempted from the strict requirements of the GMO legislation.
To avoid legal uncertainties and ensure farmers do not become too dependent on big seed companies, MEPs want to ban all patents for all NGT plants.
The whole Parliament will vote on the proposal in February, after which it can start negotiations on the new law with the governments of EU countries.