34 I EUROPEAN SEED I EUROPEAN-SEED.COM T here was a brief moment in 2015 where organic farming researchers were having an open discussion on adopting certain innovative plant breed- ing techniques (commonly referred to as NPBTs or NBTs). Then, just as fast, the radical end of the organic lobby (from IFOAM to the OCA) shut down the dis- cussion with an emphatic rejection, call- ing them: “GMOs through the backdoor”. With the label “New GM” or “GMO 2.0”, the activists (intentionally) failed to understand how the new technologies worked. Certain plant breeding tech- niques like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, cisgenesis or site-specific mutagenesis are not necessarily adding any foreign DNA into the organism. This blanket activist rejection was a monumental misstep, dealing perhaps a fatal blow to the hopes that organic farmers would ever be able to compete with conventional agriculture. Why on earth did they shoot their farmers in the foot? ZEALOTS TO THE FRONT The organic food lobby is a big tent, but the anti-industry, labelling faction has the strongest voice (and deepest pockets). A 2016 Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) report, “Biotech lobby’s push for new GMOs to escape regulation”, encap- sulated the madness of Radical Organic’s rejection of the innovative breeding tech- niques, putting it down to: • Big Biotech. They see the devel- opment of the new technologies as fur- ther big industry dominance on farmers and consumers. Organic is perceived as small and traditional so the idea of Big Biotech patents on organic farmers runs against their marketing grain. The activ- ists seem to have missed the low cost of these new technologies and how African researchers are using them to solve seri- ous problems on their own. • Non-transparent. Activists are afraid some plant innovations could be introduced without regulatory authori- sations or may go easily undetected. The demand to have them treated in Europe as GMOs is to ensure new seed develop- ments get lost in the tall grass of the end- less EU approval minefield. THE RISK CORNER WHY IS THE ORGANIC LOBBY AGAINST NBTS? BY: DAVID ZARUK • Non-natural. It does not matter if a newly-bred plant has the same DNA as traditional plants. Campaigners will reject what does not come from a “nat- ural” seed, or bred through conventional (natural?) processes. Now this may sound absurd (frankly, it is), but the activist cult believes that anything man (science) does will eventually end badly. THE ACTIVISTS’ STRATEGY The CEO report and the 2015 IFOAM NBT position paper were quite helpful in understanding the activist strategy. First, all innovative plant breeding technologies have been grouped together under the same label as NBTs, so if one breeding technique involves a foreign genetic modification, all are then categorised as “GMO 2.0”. Once that link is made, they then insist that the European Union considers all seed reg- istrations based on innovative breeding technologies under the GMO regulatory regime, assessing them not on the basis of the product but the process. Add the tired but effective uncertainty communication campaigns and the activists can go home assured that the EU will be seed-technolo- gy-free for at least two more decades. The longer the EU lets them play this game, the easier the scaremonger- ing campaigns will be. There are two curious elements added to the organic lobby strategy: consider these plant breeding innovations as an American threat (recycling the anti-TTIP rhetoric) while preparing the ground for lawsuits should the European Commission take a “pro-science” perspective. MY ADVICE FOR PLANT RESEARCHERS Until now, the research community’s response and the NBT Platform’s advo- cacy have had little effect or clear strat- egy. I would advise the following: • Scrap the NBT label. The European Commission should not be pushed by NGOs to make a decision on whether the seven “new” techniques are GMO equivalents because, simply put, the seven are all distinct forms of plant breed- ing. Not grouping them in a single basket, some techniques then could work very well for organic seed development (whether the zealot fringe like it or not). • Engage the food chain. The downstream food manufacturers will need to be woken up and encouraged to (finally) participate in this debate. The potential benefits of these innova- tive forms of plant breeding to the food chain are enormous – food producers cannot continue to stay silent and let the fear-mongers dictate their food strategies. • Wake organic farmers up. Once again, the hardliners leading the organic industry lobby are taking farmers down the dead-end path of lower productivity and poorer quality seeds. Organic farmers need to clean out the radical gardeners from their movement. • Stress the wonders and bene- fits of advances in genetic research. We are curious and positive toward genome developments in healthcare and would be equally open to these same innovations on seed technologies provided the follow- ing elements were widely understood: - That the benefits are clear, welcomed and solve critical problems (particu- larly in developing countries) - That the technologies are cheap, accessible and much of the research is done in universities - That the researchers are individ- uals striving to discover, enhance and improve agriculture. The window may not stay open much longer to tell these stories to an open and curious public. Indeed, small organisations or aca- demics breeding beneficial plants similar to traditional strains that reduce pesti- cides and improve agriculture is a story that activists in the organic lobby don’t want told to the general public. Perhaps that is the main reason the activists are opposing the new plant breeding generation. David Zaruk is a professor based in Brussels writing on environmental-health risk policy within the EU Bubble. He writes a blog under the name: The Risk-Monger. The comments in the Risk Corner are his own and does not necessarily represent the views of European Seed.