EU farmers have warned that the US regulator’s adoption of genome editing technologies risks leaving European plant breeders even further behind, due to the EU’s conservative regulatory attitude to innovative genetic  technologies.

Last week, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Sonny Perdue clarified the USDA approach to new breeding techniques such as CRISPR Cas 9 targeted genome editing, which seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present.

“Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests,” he stated.

“This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. These methods can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.

 “Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens,” Mr Perdue stated. “At the same time, I want to be clear to consumers that we will not be stepping away from our regulatory responsibilities.

But EU farm and co-operative body Copa Cogeca argues that the EU must improve Europe’s “challenging” policy and regulatory framework in the light of the US policy.

“Genetic crop improvements in EU agriculture can provide huge environmental benefits at the same time as protecting crops against pests and disease and delivering substantial benefits to the economy,” states Copa Cogeca seed working party chair Thor Gunnar Kofoed.  He notes that the EU has the largest number of plant breeders in the world, and has contributed to great progress in yield growth and quality improvement through conventional breeding over the past 50 years.

“But plant breeders in the EU face a challenging policy and regulatory framework. They need to be encouraged to invest in new breeding technologies instead of being held back. If we don’t act now, we will put ourselves in the hands of a few multinational American companies – EU farmers and their co-operatives will not accept it,” he stressed.