b'SINCE YOU ASKEDBY: NIELS LOUWAARSHOW SAFE IS PLANT BREEDING REALLY?D ebates in society about gene editing and cisgenesisSecondly, haphazard emergence of toxins in food crops appar-revolve next to ethics and corporate control aroundently does not happen. I guess that this is because mutations that safety. Can we guarantee that the varieties coming outwould induce such pathways would likely also create other off of the technology are safe for man and environment? is thetype characters that the breeder will identify in the selection question that we often get. The word safe is a complex one,processes. In addition, such extra pathways would likely come and guarantee even so. National regulatory formulations mayat a cost to the plant. They likely dont stand a chance in yield differ, but obviously, every producer is responsible for the safetytrials, so, opposite to nature, such plants do have an evolutionary of their products. However, breeders have not been bothered bydisadvantage in breeding. that responsibility much until genetic modification came along, when extensive tests were introduced to test safety. But, can we guarantee (!) that our products are safe? Biology does all kinds of awkward things (it even created the human species . . . ). We are a very long way from understanding all metabolic pathways, all GxE interactions, or even all chem- Can we guarantee that the ical compounds in plants. With the testing protocols for GMOs society created a standard for safety, but a safety-guaranteevarieties coming out of the is impossible. Science philosophers have clearly indicated that it is possible to prove that something is not safethere is notechnology are safe for man scientific methodology to prove safety. That is true for genetic modification (or gene editing for that matter) but also for con- and environment?ventional plant breeding. Since biology is complex and unpredictable, why then have we not run into all kinds of food safety issues in plant breeding over the past 150 years (lets assume that scientific breeding started with Mendel)? Is it because nature is so benevolent? Is it because our knowledge of plants is so deep that we know all risks? Or is something else at play? What do we learn from this? Breeding has proven to be safe First - nature is by definition dangerous. Plants in natureover many years and using a variety of breeding techniques. that protect themselves through physical (thorns, hairs, cellIf breeding does not produce any completely novel plants that wall characteristics), chemical (toxins, attractants, repellents)could not develop through conventionally used breeding meth-or biochemical/genetic (resistances, CRISPR) means have a com- ods, and when the breeding system continues to involve breed-petitive advantage in evolution. Mankind has avoided the firsters with plant (taxonomy) next to (bio)technological knowledge, two mechanisms to a large extent when selecting the plants forand uses several field trials before a new variety is released domestication. Still, we eat cassava with cyanide, beans withto farmers, then we should be able to confidently accept our lectins and quinoa with saponins, but luckily, we have learnedresponsibility to produce safe products.to process such foods to avoid intoxication.When, despite that, society wants extensive genetic and With regard to our knowledge of biology, we know that muta- biochemical tests, let alone feeding trials, for products of gene tions occur every day during but also after variety development.editing, society should realise that this may provide a safe feel-These may create new or divert existing metabolic pathways ining rather than a safety guarantee. Since such varieties are not the cell, which may finally produce toxins or allergens. Suchsubstantially different from conventionally bred ones, it would unexpected effects may also occur with new farming systemsthen be logical to apply such tests to all new varieties (in The (e.g. fertilization) or food processing methods.Netherlands over 2000 each year). Society then has to realise We have not encountered major food safety crises as athat consumers finally bear the costs, accept that fewer varieties result of plant breeding - possibly with the exception of a recent(biodiversity) will be released and that fewer breeders will be casualty in Germany of a person dying of eating too much of hisable to deal with the legal and financial complexities of such tests. home-bred squash. The answer is that apparently plant breedingHow safe is plant breeding really? Guarantees do not exist is safe by design. Professional breeders know their croptheyin biology, but the risk assessment that breeders, implicitly or know when toxins occur in the genus that they work with. Forexplicitly apply has proven that we operate very responsibly.example, potato (nightshade family) breeders know that they may run into trouble when crossing with wild Solanum species.Niels Louwaars is the Managing Director at Plantum. This In the Netherlands, breeders have introduced a standard forarticle does not necessarily reflect the views of allsolanine levels in the variety release procedure for this reason.Plantum members.EUROPEAN-SEED.COMIEUROPEAN SEED I 39'