Can organic rival plant breeding techniques as a solution for sustainable food?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Can organic and non-GMO agriculture offer innovative, tech-based solutions for our food system – or does hope lie in new plant breeding techniques?

“Innovation in food and farming doesn’t implicitly mean GM techniques and agrichemicals,”​ according to Honor Eldridge, policy officer at the UK’s organic certification board Soil Association.

The Soil Association strongly rejects the suggestion that Europeans’ opposition to GM is hindering food tech innovation. Rather, it argues that an “over-concentration​” on GM research has "severely hindered​" research into other more practical innovations, such as marker assisted selection crop breeding.

Agro-​ecological farmers are “great natural experimenters”​, Elridge said, and the Soil Association has developed a research programme called Innovative Farmers has over 50 field labs working on topics such as potato blight and mineral deficiencies in calves.

It is in favour of naturally-occurring hybrid seeds that are adapted to climate change and pests. This type of plant breeding tends to be low-cost and low-tech, Elridge said, but can be faster and more effective than GM.

Organic is the answer

The organic sector argues that organic farming methods is capable of  feeding the world. A recent study by researchers at the University of Aberdeen, Austria's Alpen-Adria University and Swiss ETH Zurich concluded that this was indeed the case​ – with the caveat that organic farming methods are combined with other changes to make our food system more sustainable ​such as reducing food waste and meat intake.

This view is not shared by everyone, however, and many put their faith in NPBTs, such as precision breeding and CRISPR-Cas gene-editing.

Proponents of new plant breeding techniques  (NPBTs) argue that they work with native traits in crops and, because they do not introduce new genes to the plant, are comparable to traditional plant breeding techniques. The EU’s GMO regulation therefore does not apply, they say.

The European Commission has not yet decided whether they should be excluded​ from the regulation but the stakes are high.

Currently, the EU’s 0.9% labelling law effectively acts as a barrier for GM in most food products and this labelling obligation could be a major influencing factor on consumer perception of NPBTs that will, in turn, decides the European food industry’s uptake.

European have traditionally been wary of GM – a YouGov poll in 2014​ found that 46% of adults had negative views about GM with only 6% of the public said they felt “more positive​” – and whether they warm to NPBTs remains to be seen.

In any case, the position of the organic movement is clear. “All new genetic engineering techniques should be, without question, considered as techniques of genetic modification and […] all products produced using gene-editing techniques have to remain traceable, labelled, subject to a risk assessment and to the precautionary principle,”​ said Elridge.

No special regulatory considerations

Europe's leading biotechnology lobby group EuropaBio, however, says genome editing in crops ​can be even safer than traditional breeding techniques, resulting in fewer unintended effects.  “Therefore, plant varieties developed through genome editing and CRISPR should clearly not be subject to different or additional regulatory oversight compared to conventionally bred crops, if they could also be obtained through earlier breeding methods or result from spontaneous processes in nature," ​it says.

Director for agricultural biotechnology at EuropaBio Beat Späth told FoodNavigator the sector was excited about gene editing innovations and the benefit they could bring to medicine, agriculture and the bio-economy.  “For this to actually become reality, we need proportionate, science-based policy approaches.

“Unfounded myths have been hindering innovation in Europe way beyond GMOs​,” he added.​ “What is at stake here is more than simply doing business, it’s about science, innovation and competitiveness. We want European society to thrive and become a leader in innovative and beneficial products not just in agriculture, but in healthcare, industrial production methods and beyond.”​  

In any case, GM technology is already in the Europe, said Späth. “GM is in our daily lives, in our GM cotton clothes, in modern insulin and in huge imports to feed our farm animals.”

Späth’s view is shared by British Conservative MEP Julie Girling who, as keynote speaker at a conference organized by trade group FoodDrinkEurope on innovation and science in the food industry last month,  said she hoped new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) would not suffer the same massive public rejection as GM food in Europe.

'We're changing the face of non-GMO'

The GM and non-GM debate are almost always a case of for-and-against arguments with little ‘meeting in the middle’. But Israeli computational plant breeding company Equinom does seem to sit somewhere in the middle.

It describes itself as a firm that is “changing the face of the non-GMO world” ​and is careful to ensure that the seeds it develops – such as pulses with 50% higher protein​ or split-proof sesame seeds​ that can be mechanically harvested – can be labelled as non-GM.

In any case, GM would not actually be suitable for the kind of seeds and plants it develops. Genetic modification is used to manipulate single known genes, whereas Equinom deals simultaneously with multiple traits, such as yield or nutritional quality, that involve many genes and genomic regions.

But it is not against GM technology. Its founder and CEO Equinom Gil Shalev said: “As scientists, we appreciate GMO technology and are sorry that it had not lived up to its promise to transform the world of breeding. Part of the reason GMO did not make a major breakthrough is that as humans we are cautious about food technology that breaks the barriers of nature, as we are uncertain of the long-term consequences.”

Equinom does not take a negative view of the situation in Europe. If Europeans’ view on biotechnology has hindered GM, that leaves a gap in the market that other ag-tech solutions can fill.

Consumers rejecting a technology that the industry put its money on, makes room for new innovation. The market is now providing the right conditions for companies with non-GMO solutions such as Equinom to make a significant breakthrough.”

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