Plant domestication began around 10,000 years ago in the Near East. Until the 20th century, it was carried out essentially by crossing and selection, causing not only profound alterations, which increased productivity, but which also allowed the creation of new species, such as the triticale.
A trivial example of breeding is bananas, seedless fruits, easy to consume and appealing. The changes were particularly noticeable in cereals, increasing the number and size of grains and reducing their ability to release fruit, which facilitates harvesting. The need to change plants is not a whim of humans, rather it results from a need to feed a constantly growing population, which recently reached 8000000000.
Although conventional breeding is still widely used today, advances in genetics and agricultural biotechnology have given scientists other tools that allow genetically modifying plants in a more precise and efficient way. Thus, thousands of varieties of the most cultivated species (rice, corn and wheat) were obtained by induced mutagenesisa technique that allows accelerating naturally occurring mutations that are responsible for increasing genetic variability.
In the mid-1980s, the so-called “genetically modified plants” appeared. These varieties, widely cultivated in several countries such as Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil or the United States of America, have had a very low impact in the European Union due to very restrictive legislation (Directive 2001/18/CE).
Based on the precautionary principle, this regulation imposes limitations, which make the use of genetically modified varieties practically impossible. In itself, the precautionary principle is meritorious (caution and chicken broth…). Basing legislation on a principle is more complex. Have you ever imagined the precautionary principle applied to the use of tractors? Taking into account the various dozens of deaths that annually register in Portugal involving these vehicles, the application of this principle would make them a technological curiosity.
Oblivious to debatable principles, science continued to advance and, already in this century, a set of techniques called New Genomic Techniques (NGT from English New Genomic Techniques). NGTs modify plants either by inducing more precise mutations (directed mutagenesis) or by manipulating the plant’s own genes (cisgenesis) without introducing genes from other organisms (transgenesis).
Unfortunately, in 2018, following an action brought by an association of French farmers, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), considered that plants obtained by mutagenesis using NGT should be evaluated under the directive on genetically modified plants. The consequences for European science and agriculture were devastating, once again leaving European scientists and farmers unable to use cutting-edge technologies in plant improvement, unlike what happens with the main trading partners of the European Union.
To overcome this impasse, the European Commission made available, in April 2021, during the Portuguese presidency, a study on the status of NGT in European legislation and, following which, a public hearing was held at European level on this matter. Of the 2300 contributions, 61% indicated that the risk analysis for plants obtained by NGT should be different from the one currently in force.
Thus, the conditions seem to have been created for a change in European legislation that allows the use of NGT in plant improvement, and which were recently (February 2023) reinforced by a CJEU decision that considered that plants obtained by in vitro mutagenesis should not apply to Directive 2001/18/EC.
These signs should culminate in a new legal framework for NGT that allows European agriculture to become more sustainable not only from an environmental point of view, but also from a socio-economic point of view, helping to meet the United Nations goals for Sustainable Development and the more specific to the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. To give up these modern improvement techniques is to give up on our food security, which has been severely compromised by Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and the climate change.
The author writes according to the new spelling agreement