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New Hope for Agriculture: Genomic Techniques Offer Promise, but Regulations Cause Friction

FOOD & AGRICULTURENew Hope for Agriculture: Genomic Techniques Offer Promise, but Regulations Cause Friction

Genomic techniques (NGT) enable the production of plants with increased drought and disease resistance, and their cultivation requires fewer fertilizers and pesticides. The European Commission indicates that NGT is an innovation that could enhance the resilience of the food system to climate change. Currently, all plants produced this way are subject to the same stringent regulations as GMOs. Therefore, last year the European Commission proposed new regulations concerning plants obtained through genomic techniques. In February this year, the EU Parliament endorsed it, paving the way for negotiations with EU member state governments in the Council. Many member states, including Poland, express concerns about NGT patents remaining in the hands of global corporations, which could undermine the position of European breeders.

Genomic techniques involve introducing specific changes into plant DNA. Often, they do not require the use of foreign genetic material, i.e., from species that could not naturally crossbreed. This means that similar results could be achieved with traditional breeding methods, such as hybridization and seed selection, but this process would take much longer. Advances in biotechnology, however, allow for the genetic structure of plants to be edited more quickly and precisely, by developing new varieties that require fewer fertilizers and pesticides, are more resistant to diseases, pests, drought, and other extreme climate conditions, or have improved nutritional values.

“Genomic techniques allow us to obtain plant forms that are more resistant to various factors resulting from climate and weather, such as drought, as well as those making the plant more resistant to specific diseases or pests. These techniques enable us to achieve in a short time what normally happens in nature, where rare mutations lead to the development of new traits in a species. Meanwhile, genomic techniques, through appropriate genomic manipulation within species, allow us to do this very quickly. This is a certain hope when it comes to breeding new forms,” says Witold Boguta, President of the National Union of Fruit and Vegetable Producer Groups to Newseria Biznes agency. “It must be considered that this cannot be done by a simple company that deals with plant breeding. This can only be done by large companies that have the appropriate scientific, technical, and financial potential.”

Outside the EU, several such plant products are already available commercially. For example, in the US market, and soon also in Canada, a less bitter-tasting Sarepta mustard is available. In the Philippines, bananas that do not brown have been approved, which helps reduce food waste and CO2 emissions. There is also a development of improved crops such as low-gluten wheat or virus-resistant corn.

In 2001, when the EU adopted legislation concerning genetically modified organisms (GMO), genomic techniques did not yet exist. However, over the last decade, thanks to advances in biotechnology, many new genomic techniques have been developed. Therefore, in 2019, the Council requested the European Commission to analyze this progress and the legal status of NGT.

“The European Union has been working on regulations concerning the implementation of genomic techniques for some time now, and there have already been draft solutions and regulations to which member states, including Poland, which has not yet issued a positive recommendation, have responded. However, the legal status today is essentially that this whole discussion and future regulations are still undetermined, and that is ahead of us,” says Witold Boguta.

The European Commission has stated that NGT could bring significant benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment. However, the current regulations (currently, all plants obtained through NGT are subject to the same rules as GMOs) lag behind scientific and technical progress and do not sufficiently facilitate the development and marketing of innovative products obtained through genomic techniques. Therefore, in July 2023, the European Commission proposed new regulations concerning plants obtained through NGT.

The draft of the new EU regulations specifies two categories of plants obtained this way, considering their different characteristics and risk profiles. The first category includes NGT plants equivalent to those that occur naturally or are bred conventionally. These would be excluded from the stringent requirements for GMOs, and the law would enable easier granting of permits and market introduction. The second category would be NGT plants with more complex modifications, which would still have to meet the stringent requirements set out in the GMO directive (the EU has some of the strictest regulations in this area). This means they would be subject to monitoring, risk assessment, and could only be introduced to the market after a permitting procedure.

Moreover, the draft of the new regulations also indicates, among other things, that NGT plants would be banned in organic production, and their seeds would have to be clearly labeled so that farmers know what they are growing. To avoid legal uncertainty and ensure that farmers do not become too dependent on large seed companies, the EU Parliament also wants to ban the patenting of all NGT plants, plant material, genetic information, etc. It also demands a report by June 2025 on the impact of patents on breeders’ and farmers’ access to diverse plant reproductive material. In February this year, MEPs already leaned towards the new regulations, which

opened the way for negotiations on the final version of the regulation with the governments of EU member states in the Council.

“Companies interested in implementing and popularizing genomic techniques, as well as producers, are interested in the introduction of these regulations. However, the solutions proposed in these regulations still raise a number of doubts among individual member states and various interest groups. For now, the Polish government, the Polish Ministry of Agriculture, has also expressed negative opinions regarding these regulations in their current form. Work is ongoing, and we hope that it will soon conclude with specific solutions,” says the president of the National Union of Groups of Fruit and Vegetable Producers.

In October last year, Poland adopted a negative position on the EC project. After a change of government, the new head of the agriculture department, Czesław Siekierski, upheld this position. The key issue raising doubts—not only in Poland but also in other EU countries that have not yet supported the project—remains the patenting of NGT plants. The ministry points out that Poland recognizes the potential associated with NGT plants, but the owners of already patented plants are not Polish or even European small and medium-sized breeding companies, but global corporations. This raises justified concerns among Polish breeders about being marginalized, and farmers becoming dependent on foreign breeding and chemical corporations.

Concerns about the effects of patenting are presented by virtually all EU countries, even those in favor of introducing NGT. As a result, there is still not enough majority in the Council to adopt a general approach and start trilogues with the European Parliament.

“Generally, as an industry, we are in favor of these techniques, because acquiring new forms also means improving competitiveness. If other countries were to have such forms on a large scale and we did not, it is clear that we would be left behind,” says Witold Boguta. “However, our government’s opposition is fully justified, as the introduction of genomic techniques as legal would essentially eliminate most of our entities involved in breeding. They would not be able to afford to implement these new techniques, and we would have to acquire them from large corporations, paying them correspondingly high prices for the material obtained or later, at further stages of its reproduction. This would negatively impact not only Polish breeding but also the Polish producer who would want to use the material obtained in this way.”

The safety of plants obtained through genomic techniques has been thoroughly examined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The European Commission points out that NGT is an innovation that can increase the resilience of the food system to climate changes, help achieve the objectives of the Green Deal, and ensure EU food security by making it independent of agricultural-food production from third countries. Farmers would benefit from greater availability of plants adapted to the needs of the sector, which could be resistant to weather conditions and pests, require fewer fertilizers and pesticides, or provide higher yields. Consumers could choose from a greater number of food products with better taste, better nutritional properties, or lower levels of allergenic substances, while simultaneously purchasing products that contribute to sustainable development. Additionally, producers and traders also see benefits, including reducing emissions associated with food transport and properties that facilitate processing.

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