Innovation is a key component of any reliable policy to tackle challenges and paves the way for a sustainable future. Europe has had problems with acknowledging this fact and could even be seen balancing innovation against precaution and science-based decision-making. However, as indicated in the EU Commission’s Green Deal and its Farm-to-Fork strategy, innovative technologies, which includes biotechnological breeding approaches, have been flagged as an important pillar. Thus, there is hope that new genomic tools and other technological solutions will also get a chance to play a role in Europe’s agricultural future.
At the same time, an anti-technology sentiment is currently leading to an unjustified attempt in France to re-classify established breeding tools, which have been used safely for decades, and would make their future use hardly possible. Moreover, the new approach would severely affect existing intra-European trade of agricultural products and would leave farmer needs for suitable tools for efficient crop cultivation unconsidered.
While in a first step only certain herbicide tolerant oilseed rape varieties are targeted, the new rules in France may affect many other crops, where mutagenesis techniques have been applied in multiple forms for the benefit of consumers and the environment. This would not only impact France, but indirectly may also affect multiple other EU member states.
The core issue with the proposed new French rules is the arbitrary splitting of random mutagenesis breeding into different groups (in-vitro and in-vivo). These approaches are neither different in their effect on the breeding material to which they are applied, nor are they distinguishable in the resulting product. So, how could such an initiative gain momentum without any scientific assessment?
Herbicide tolerant crops make crop protection more efficient and contribute to sustainable agricultural production by allowing a more targeted weed control after crop emergence and for difficult weeds that compete with the crop for nutrients, light and space. Only increased crop yields can balance the ever-rising need for high-quality food without increasing the amount of land dedicated to agricultural production. If we want a realistic path towards the Farm-to-Fork goals, advanced breeding techniques and cultivation tools will have to be applied. A future agriculture that actively reduces CO2 emissions, preserves biodiversity, minimizes the use of natural resources and ensures farmers’ capacity to produce sufficient, safe, nutritious and affordable food for all, needs technology. Precision farming, data-driven agriculture, seed breeding and innovation in crop protection are enablers in agricultural production to fight the challenges of a changing climate.
Whatever the reasons for this French initiative are, our understanding is that the whole breeding sector is open to work with policy makers to reach a reasonable and realistic path forward. Unilateral decisions in one Member State, without sound scientific justification, can have severe consequences for many sectors that may be initially overlooked. Destroying the basis of marketing safe products is also destroying trust in European politics and risks the economic functionality of the common market.
We trust that a thorough assessment of the proposed rules will help to find an alternative way and a fair balance of interests, while allowing safe breeding methods to contribute fully to a sustainable future agriculture.
Editor’s Note: Matthias Pohl is Global Head of Governmental Affairs Seeds & Traits at BASF Agricultural Solutions