As part of the revision of the GMO legislation which will be proposed by the Commission in a few months, genome editing techniques (NBT) could be authorized in the Union, in particular to adapt crops to evolution of the climate. But nothing is guaranteed yet.
After Argentina, Brazil is the second country in the world to have authorized the marketing of a transgenic wheat, the HB4 variety. Its particularity: being resistant to drought.
HB4 wheat came out of a consortium, Trigall Genetics, led by the Argentinian company Bioceres, but also by the French seed giant Florimond Desprez.
This cereal “ will make it possible to increase the floor yield in areas where the cultivation of wheat is not sufficiently profitable due to soil salinity or frequent water deficits ”, declared the director of strategy of Bioceres, in 2013, at the time of seed development.
This innovation comes at the right time as South America has seen its wheat yields plummet following severe water shortages for more than a year.
In Europe, the cultivation of GMOs remains extremely controlled and almost non-existent. However, many GMOs are authorized for import by the EU, mainly for animal feed (soya, corn).
From GMOs to NBTs
If some voices are raised to demand the development of GMOs in Europe, the debate now focuses mainly on new varietal selection techniques, called NBT (new breeding techniques, or new selection techniques).
The difference with GMOs? Unlike the latter, produced by “ transgenesis ”, or insertion of a gene from another species into a genome, NBTs are based on very precise genome editing techniques, in particular through a molecular scissor (Cripr CAS 9).
Unlike other varietal selection techniques such as crossbreeding, these biotechnologies are currently prohibited in Europe, since the European Court of Justice (CJEU) ruled in 2018, in the name of the precautionary principle, by submitting NBTs to the European GMO Directive 2001 (2001/18/EC).
“For us, NBTs are not GMOs, there is a difference between integrating a gene from another species and causing mutations in a very precise way, mutations that could occur in nature, with delays shorter”, explains to EURACTIV Rachel Blumel, director general of the French Union of seed companies, who denounces this legal amalgam.
Since the war in Ukraine, soaring grain prices and especially global warming, the debate around genetic selection has started again. For their proponents, NBTs will be able to accelerate the development of plant varieties better adapted to drought.
“If there had been no genetic improvement since the 2000s, European production would have been 20% lower in 2020. In the current context, the more precise our tools are, the faster we can go in implementing on the market for new varieties”, confides Rachel Blumel, based on a study carried out by the research institute HFFA Research.
If the American seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred has already managed to develop a maize (ARGOS8) with NBTs, which shows a certain tolerance to water stress, the gene for resistance to drought is still pending.
“The ‘climate ready’ or ‘water stress resistant’ plant is extremely complicated to obtain, because it is not a monogenic modification [which concerns only one gene]”, admits Christophe Noisette, founder of Inf ‘GMO. For the activist, betting everything on NBTs to the detriment of agronomy leads to a dead end.
“Between the results obtained in the lab or greenhouse and the reality in the fields, the difference is often notorious. It can work for a short time, but to adapt to its environment, the plant needs time, it must evolve with its territory, its terroir,” he explains.
Nor should we see in it, according to Christophe Noisette and most opponents of the NBT, a systematic opposition to all methods of varietal selection. They rather applauded the recent creation of Jabal wheat, a drought-resistant variety obtained from simple conventional crosses with a variety of wheat originating from the arid regions of Syria.
As for the argument that NBTs – or GMOs – would save time in the development of new varieties, Christophe Noisette rejects it outright: “Ghana has been working on a GMO cowpea for 10 years, but the seeds will not be probably not available to farmers before 2024/2025 if its promoters are to be believed. The time saved with this technique is marginal”.
“There are no promises around NBTs, it’s not a magic wand. It’s like enriching a toolbox, with a screwdriver, a saw and more. This is the reason why we especially need a dynamic of supervised research”, insists the director of the French seed companies.
Towards a Relaxation of Regulations in The EU?
Today, the big seed companies, with the support of the French government, are pushing the EU to take NBTs out of the GMO regulatory framework in which they have been locked in since 2001.
Last September, the Agriculture Ministers of the 27 Member States urged the Commission to speed up the review of this regulatory framework. Shortly thereafter, the EU executive pledged to submit a proposal to ease the regulations in the second quarter of 2023.
Everything therefore seems to indicate that we are moving towards an authorization of NBTs in Europe. Especially since, recently, the European Investment Bank (EIB) granted aid of 40 million euros to the Florimond Desprez group to finance research into varieties adapted to climate change.
But the mass is not said. According to Christophe Noisette, “the number of Member States that support the Commission has been reduced recently, even Germany, after having been a fervent supporter of technology, is backtracking. »
Indeed, since 2021, the ruling coalition across the Rhine (Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals) has been more nuanced on the issue than the governments that preceded it. By going so far as to oppose it, like the German Minister for the Environment, Steffi Lemke, when she explained last January, in a speech that “ the efforts of the European Commission aimed at eliminating the Risk assessment for plants produced using new genetic techniques unfortunately does not point the right way. »
If France, Spain or Italy are resolutely on the side of the NBTs, this German uncertainty risks complicating matters when the States will have to decide on the Commission’s proposal within the framework of a European trialogue.
“In Germany and Austria, large retailers are rather reluctant. In France, Picard has already positioned itself against it, and others should follow”, adds Christophe Noisette.
Today Argentina, but also the United States or Japan develop and market products derived from NBT. “ These new techniques are subject to regulations worldwide in all continents, except in Europe ”, regrets Rachel Blumel.
In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons has just voted, after the House of Lords, to relax its own regulations.
“If Europe does not allow access to these tools, to solutions to respond to constraints such as those imposed by the climate, we risk importing more to the detriment of food sovereignty”, insists Ms. Blumel, recalling that genetics, along with digital technology and robotics, is one of the means promoted by the Green Deal for Europe.
According to the public consultation launched by the European Commission last year on new genomic techniques, 79% of European respondents consider that the legislative framework for GMOs is not adapted to new gene editing techniques (NBT).
Will Europe develop a future drought-resistant wheat thanks to NBTs? Response next June, with the European Commission’s proposal.
This article is originally published on euractiv.fr