The Netherlands: EU ruling on new breeding techniques could harm seed exports

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

October 2, 2018

The Netherlands is apprehensive about the recent European court ruling on new plant breeding techniques, warning it could risk the country’s position as the world’s largest seed exporter.

The European court ruled last July that agricultural products developed through precise new gene editing techniques like CRISPR should be regulated in the same way as transgenics, commonly called genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“[If regulated as] a GMO, the application of these new methods will involve extremely costly and time-consuming procedures because genetically modified varieties must undergo a wide range of safety tests. Only the biggest companies in the industry can afford to pay these costs,” said Plantum, a Dutch association of more than 250 companies that produce and trade seeds and young plants, in a statement circulated to journalists at the 2018 Congress of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) in the Netherlands, prior to the court ruling.

The association warned that “as long as the new methods fall under the GMO legislation, companies based in the Netherlands will not invest in them, which puts their strong position in the global market at risk.”

The Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of seeds and young plants, and the sector provides jobs to more than 12,000 people locally. Companies based in the Netherlands account for about one-third of the world’s vegetable seed exports. In 2016 alone, Dutch companies exported 2.7 billion Euros’ worth of plant reproductive materials, and exports are still on the rise. More than 30 percent of the EU applications for plant breeders’ rights are made by Dutch breeders.

“Nowadays, breeding companies can quickly and precisely develop new varieties adapted to changing circumstances, and the methods they use are just as safe as conventional breeding methods. Plantum believes that these new plant breeding methods must remain free of unnecessary regulatory pressure to enable them to become widely available,” the statement added.

However, the group also stated that any food produced with these cutting-edge technologies should be subjected to the same risk assessments, tracing and labeling systems required of traditional GMOs.

In a separate statement after the court ruling, Niels Louwaars, director of branch organization at Plantum, said the “ruling in response to questions from the French Supreme Court gives the sector long-awaited clarity, but not the clarity we had hoped for. Such an assessment will cost between 10 and 100 million Euros per custom property in connection with a multitude of tests on human and environmental impacts. This is only an option for the largest arable crops in the world, but is a NO GO for all other crops.”

The group is worried the ruling will make Europe less competitive in the plant breeding space. “Europe is not an island and many Dutch breeding companies work internationally. What is their position now that competitors outside Europe can use these methods? Plantum is deeply disappointed about this decision. Certainly for small-to-medium enterprises, this makes it impossible to use these methods. The judgment is a missed opportunity to accelerate the contribution of plant breeding to the sustainability of agriculture and horticulture,” the organization stated on its website.

Despite the huge popularity of genetically modified crops in different parts of the world, such as the United States, where more than 80 percent of corn and soy are genetically modified, the EU has approved only one GM corn variety. Cumbersome regulatory procedures in Europe have derailed the expansion of the technology on the continent.

Steve Werblow, general secretary of the International Federation of Agric Journalists, told the Alliance for Science in an interview that there is a need for more discussions on the technologies used in producing food so the public does not fear them.

“I think we need to take the same look at science as we look at agric technologies — to not fear technologies, but to understand it,” he said. “What are GMOs? What are the crop protection products that people can use? What are the systems that they can use? What is happening in the soil and the air and the water that is allowing farmers to do a better job in producing food?”

In delivering a lecture to journalists on new breeding techniques, Prof. John van der Oost of the microbiology laboratory at Wageningen University and Research praised “CRISPR as a technology that gives us the strength and opportunity to speed up evolution.” When a journalist asked him whether he found it frustrating that politicians in Brussels — the EU headquarters —took from his hands tools that can be used to help improve upon seeds, van der Oost responded in the affirmative. “It’s very frustrating. When it comes to biofuels, it’s normal. But when it comes to foods, it’s more difficult to get through vegetable plants, even when indeed you can show that this is the same.”

Vegetable farmer Gerjan Snippe of Bio Brass is convinced that farmers in the Netherlands do not need GMOs. But he told the Alliance for Science that other countries should be allowed to use the technology. “We don’t need it here… But I know that in other parts of the world, it’s being used in a different way. I was in Brazil and I understood that farmers are using less and less chemicals by planting those [GM] varieties. I don’t like it, but I can imagine that some other people may want to use it to get bigger stuff.”