A closer look at some of the key challenges and opportunities through the eyes of EU Parliamentarian Jan Huitema
Several high level topics are battling for attention at the forefront of EU agriculture; the new methods grouped into the term plant breeding innovation, and the interface between patents and plant breeders’ rights. To find out more about these and other topics, European Seed sat down with Jan Huitema of the EU Parliament to learn more about his take on some of the most controversial topics for EU agriculture at the moment.
CHALLENGES TO EU AGRICULTURE
European Seed (ES): What would you say are the main challenges for the EU agriculture at the moment and how should we face them? How can the seed sector help with these challenges?
Jan Huitema (JH): A major challenge at the moment is how we can best produce enough high quality food for our EU population in a sustainable way. Food that is healthy, has a longer shelf life, is tastier, and so on. In addition, consumers these days want a more diverse pallet than in the past, so there is a need for more diversity in the shops. This means that the agricultural sector needs to diversify and innovate to provide good and affordable food for all.
Of course food waste is another major challenge. Each year 100 million tonnes of food in Europe is wasted or thrown away, which amounts to approximately 30-50 per cent of the food produced in the EU, so we need to find ways to bring these numbers down. This will require a greater level of cooperation in the food chain to reduce the current levels of waste. However, I’m afraid that we have an out-dated regulatory framework that is forming barriers to innovative ways of processing food waste. The sharing of best practices and prioritising innovative projects should be encouraged to combat food waste and losses. I’d like to stress that for every tonne of food waste avoided, approximately 4.2 tonnes of CO2 could be saved, which would have a significant impact on the environment.
Besides this, of course climate change and biodiversity are big challenges, as is water quality and several others. All of the above needs to happen, keeping the environment in mind. We are losing a lot of natural resources so we need a resource efficient agriculture to address all of these challenges.
At the end of the day it boils down to an increased production with less soil, water and other resources. This means a more efficient production. Many people tend to think that economic development and sustainable production are mutually exclusive, but they are not. The synergy is achievable through innovation in technology, governance by providing regulatory coherence, and room for entrepreneurship.”
ES: You have recently written the report on enhancing innovation and economic development in future European farm management. Why was it necessary to write this report?
JH: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a rise in the global population, an increase in average incomes and changing consumer behaviour are expected to lead to greater demand for food in the coming decades, while the impact of climate change on natural resources will compel us to reduce the ecological footprint of our food production system. This will require the agricultural sector to increase both its productivity and its sustainability, meaning that farmers will need to ‘produce more with less’.
Innovation is considered to play a key role in tackling this dual challenge of fostering green growth in farming. A prominent concept in this regard is precision agriculture, a relatively new ICT-based farm management approach that encompasses a wide range of technologies, including satellite positioning/navigation, sensors and drones. By providing more precise information on their crops or animals, these techniques enable farmers to allocate their inputs (such as fertilisers, fuels, and animal feed) in a more targeted and efficient way, thus increasing their profitability and at the same time reducing their impact on the environment. Agricultural innovations can also make a contribution to other agro-ecological and economic objectives, such as combatting crop diseases and soil degradation; improving animal health and welfare; enhancing the competitiveness of the European agricultural sector; and developing new products, services, and jobs along the agri-food value chain.
However, the adoption of novel agricultural technologies by European farms has been relatively modest until now. The reason for this is a variety of obstacles, including insufficient knowledge transfers from researchers to farmers, the high start-up costs of buying the necessary machinery, especially for small-scale farmers, and the fact that regulations are not always tailored to the specific needs of the agricultural sector.
PLANT BREEDING INNOVATION
ES: Lately there has been much talk (and controversy) about new methods which are used in plant breeding (the so called new breeding techniques). What is your take on this and should these methods be allowed without regulation?
JH: It all starts with plant breeding, as plant breeding is absolutely crucial in our efforts to mitigate some of the challenges that we have ahead. The group of methods that is often been classified as the new breeding techniques have great potential to help in those efforts. There is some controversy by certain groups in society, including the fraction The Greens/EFA in the EU Parliament, which are saying that allowing varieties that were bred with these new methods on the EU market without regulation, could lead to allowing GM varieties ‘via the backdoor’.
Such people forget that we are using biotechnology in many other areas, such as for the production of insulin. At the moment there are 250 biotechnology health care products and vaccines available to patients, many for previously untreatable diseases. You don’t hear anyone arguing against the use of insulin or other medicines produced with the help of biotechnology.
These new breeding methods in basically all cases do not use foreign DNA, but species own DNA, and therefore the regulation of such products should in my view be made much easier than products which are produced with regular transgenesis methods. The products of these new methods will more quickly and more efficiently lead to varieties that are better resistant against pests, and therefore needs less pesticides. But also to varieties that have better taste, varieties which need less fertilizers and so on. And that means that with all these innovations, the conventional agriculture is coming closer to organic agriculture.
We should not forget that mankind has been altering our crops for the past 12,000 years or so. The modern varieties of tomato, wheat, maize, lettuce and all our other food and feed crops no longer resemble the primitive species from which they originate thousands of years ago. Mankind has been changing all of our crops for the past millennia to suit our needs. The new breeding methods do the same but then in a faster and more efficient manner.
One perfect example of the great potential of the new breeding methods is the late blight resistant potato which was developed with the help of cisgenesis. All potato growers, including organic potato growers, are desperate for such late blight resistant varieties, and in the absence of such varieties, potato growers are spraying their potato fields about 15 times per season. Unfortunately due to the lack of an EU wide decision on these new methods, this late blight resistant potato stays on the shelf, and potato growers continue to spray their field against late blight.
ES: It is a fact that other countries have started to commercialize plant products that were created with these new methods (such as Canada, US and Argentina). Does EU run the risk to be on the outside again?
JH: Yes, this is certainly the case. We have seen a brain drain out of Europe due to the ban on GM varieties, and in case the products of new breeding methods will need to be regulated in a similar way as GM products, we will see a further brain drain as a result. Smart thinkers and whole companies will pack up their belongings and move to other continents, as has happened with GM. In such a situation Europe would no longer be calling the shots, but would be entirely dependent on other countries outside Europe.
ES: Biotechnology and especially GM varieties is already for many years a very controversial topic in the EU. And although there is no scientific evidence of the negative impact of GM varieties, there is still a lot of opposition against it. Surveys show that many farmers in EU would like to grow GM varieties, and the ban puts them at a disadvantage with other countries in the world. How do you explain this, and what should be done in your view to overcome the opposition against GM varieties?
JH: When talking about ‘regular’ biotechnology and GM varieties, we should never forget that all these products are perfectly safe. Before going on the market, each GM variety has to be tested by the relevant authorities to ensure it safety. The major problem why public acceptance of GM varieties is so low has to do with credibility. The general consumer does not trust messages coming from industry and also no longer trusts the messages coming from the politicians. When it comes to countries voting on GM crops, there is a regulatory gridlock in the EU. Some countries such as Austria or Croatia are always voting against, and other countries such as The Netherlands or Finland or always voting in favour. However, there is never a majority in favour or against, leading to a stalemate which does not seem to move, and that is very unfortunate. Let’s hope with the new breeding techniques we can turn the page. It would be good if the press would report more on the numerous benefits and positive impact of biotechnology and GM crops.
ES: The interface between plant breeders’ rights and patents and more specifically the patenting of product of essentially biological processed are the subject of many discussions and recently the EU Commission has issued a Clarifying Notice on the topic. Do you think the EU is on the right track with this Notice, and what else needs to be done in this respect?
JH: In my view, no one should have the right to patent the natural characteristics of plants and products coming from classical plant breeding. In other words, there can be no monopolies on vegetables and fruits. However, because of unclear legislation in the EU, that possibility does exist. Towards the end of 2015, the European Parliament spoke against this practice via a Resolution. And in a recently published Clarifying Notice (see also European Seed Volume 3, Issue 4), the EU Commission states that it was never the intention to give the possibility to patent natural characteristics of plants and their products coming from classical plant breeding. I was one of the two initiators of the Resolution in the EU Parliament after the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office (EPO) had agreed to allow patents on natural characteristics of broccoli and tomato. This was done on the basis of the EU Directive 98/44/EC on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions, adopted in 1998.
The EU Commission listened to our call and also came to the conclusion that products coming from essentially biological processes, such as classical plant breeding, should not be patented. Patents on natural characteristics of plants are blocking innovation and are a threat to food security and crop biodiversity. The first battle has been won, now the ball is in the court of the European Patent Office to adapt their guidelines on the basis of this new information. We can’t force the EPO to change their guidelines, but the pressure on them has certainly increased. I call upon the responsible ministers in the EU Member States to join the initiative and express themselves unequivocally against the possibility of patenting natural characteristics of plants and products coming from classical plant breeding. Having said that I think we should not go as far as opening the Biotech Directive. This Directive was meant for the patenting of GM varieties. Opening it would open the proverbial ‘Pandora’s box’ with unknown consequences and would steer the EU in the opposite direction.
ES: Another very hot potato in Europe has been the extension of the approval of glyphosate. Why is this so controversial?
JH: Based on the information provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the daily intake of glyphosate to which people are exposed is two million times less than the dose necessary to develop its carcinogenic effects. So maybe from a hazard perspective glyphosate might be considered as carcinogenic, from the risk assessment perspective, there is no significant risk for the consumers to develop cancer from the use of glyphosate. One may wonder why, considering that there is a consensus among scientists that glyphosate is safe, there is still a political debate about its authorisation. The EU Commission decided in June 2016 to grant an 18 month extension, and have the dossier assessed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). I am glad to see that this topic has now been removed from the political debate and into the realm of science. It is important that independent scientist analyse the situation and provide us with their findings. Unfortunately, such debates as we have seen on glyphosate are symptomatic for the fact that peer reviewed science is not taken serious enough as it should be.
ES: In a previous issue of European Seed we have reported on Brexit and the impact it may have on the UK. How do you see the impact of Brexit on EU agriculture?
JH: Well this is hard to say at this point, as we don’t know much about the outcome of the negotiations that will need to take place. It will largely depend on whether the UK can keep access to the EU internal market or not. It is a fact that the UK is a large export market, so this part of the trade from EU to UK may become disrupted. Overall it is a big loss that the UK has decided to step out of the EU. For one because their agriculture was always more open to and has always relied more heavily on science and innovation. As such the UK was a staunch supporter of innovation in agriculture in Brussels and their leaving will be to the detriment of both UK and EU agriculture. “
Editors Note: Jan Huitema is a Dutch politician and dairy farmer. He has been a member of the European Parliament for the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy representing the Netherlands since July 2014.
Where on the web: Report on enhancing innovation and economic development in future European farm management: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-%2f%2fEP%2f%2fTEXT%2bREPORT%2bA8-2016-0163%2b0%2bDOC%2bXML%2bV0%2f%2fEN&language=EN