A survey of European plant breeders has found that potential investment in new breeding techniques such as gene editing is being stifled by current EU rules. The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) argues that such techniques are vital to produce the varieties needed for more sustainable crop production and calls on government to legislate to allow them in the UK post-Brexit.

EU plant breeders’ organisation Euroseeds surveyed 62 plant breeding companies in Europe. It found very strong commercial interest, regardless of company size, in using new breeding techniques (NBTs) across a wide range of crop species and traits. But it also showed the negative effect on EU-based research and investment of the 2018 European Court ruling that classified varieties developed using these NBTs as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This may have affected smaller European breeding companies the most, as they are less able to move R&D activities outside the EU.

The survey found that NBT research activity covered a wide range of crops including cereals, vegetables, fruits, oilseeds, pulses, ornamentals, sugar beet, maize and sorghum. There was work on important agronomic, climate-proofing and consumer-facing traits such as yield, food/feed quality, pest/disease resistance, heat/drought tolerance and industrial non-food applications.

But, 40% of smaller and 33% of the large companies had stopped or reduced their NBT-related R&D activities after the ECJ ruling. The three major factors currently limiting the potential use of NBTs in plant breeding were: the regulatory costs and timelines under the current EU GMO legislation; uncertainty over future regulations, including timelines for product approvals; and public acceptance under GMO regulations.

“The Euroseeds survey highlights the strong interest among plant breeding companies of all sizes in using new precision breeding tools such as gene editing to enhance the speed and accuracy of crop breeding programmes, and the diverse range of potential applications, from improved crop quality and performance to better nutrition, climate resilience, and developing renewable, plant-based sources of industrial products and materials,” notes BSPB chief executive Samantha Brooke.

“Advances such as these are urgently needed for crop production to meet society’s future expectations in terms of climate change, healthier diets and more sustainable approaches to providing a secure supply of safe, affordable food. But the survey also confirms that potential investment in these techniques is currently being stifled by EU rules classifying them as GMOs – a regulatory stance at odds with the rest of the world.

“BSPB welcomes the UK government’s objection to the ECJ ruling, and ministers’ commitment to consult on taking simple gene editing techniques out of the scope of existing GMO regulations post-Brexit.

“We look forward to the public consultation on this legislative change, which would give a boost to prospects for investment and innovation in UK breeding programmes, and for more productive, climate-friendly and sustainable crop production,” Ms Brooke concludes.