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Saturday 21 January 2017

New technology will re-open GM debate in Europe

Richard Hackett

Published 09/08/2016 | 02:30

Genetically modified corn.
Genetically modified corn.

New plant breeding techniques that can switch genes 'on' and 'off', and reposition genes within a plant are re-opening the genetically modified (GM) debate within Europe.

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Current legislation has effectively stymied any GM crops being used by European farmers, and fears are mounting that farm productivity in the region is falling behind the rest of the world.

But more nuanced techniques that can improve yields, disease resistance and stress tolerance in plants without introducing exotic genes into the picture are now commercially available.

A conference on the latest breeding techniques in Dublin last week heard how plant breeders can now graft GM rootstock onto non-GM plant material, as well as create transient genes within a plant that work temporarily before disappearing.

Prof Piet van der Meer told delegates that only one GM modification has successfully passed through the legislative process over the last 15 years, by which time it was withdrawn by the company that developed it.

Prof van der Meer, who is both a botanist and a lawyer, was previously in charge of biosafety regulation in the Netherlands.

The process of evaluating genetic modifications within the EU has reached a complete standstill, and the conference heard that there is no political will to change from that position.

Genetic modification and the legislation surrounding it is based on the concept of 'novelty', where a product is developed that does not occur in nature, and is impossible to produce with conventional breeding techniques.

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However, new breeding processes are being modified, improved and developed at an increasingly rapid rate.

How to deal with them from a legislative perspective is a question that is occupying the minds of some of Europe's top legal experts.

The case of a large double-muscled bull to breed small Friesian crossbred cows in marginal regions, which often requires significant non-conventional input was just one example cited.

In contrast, many of these latest breeding processes result in products that could happen in nature, but are created in a more focussed, reliable and faster way than conventional techniques.

Scientists present were enthused about the game-changing potential of the cutting-edge science, but many were unsure as to whether the technology will survive the populist politics that has overturned many science-based decisions within the EU in recent times.

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