The EU is proposing new rules around new genomic techniques (NGTs) governed by GMO legislation.

Designed to take advantage of emerging technologies, the European Commission (EC) plans to separate plants cultivated by NGTs into two categories: those “comparable to naturally occurring or conventional plants” and those with “more complex modifications”.

Plants obtained by NGTs are subject to the same rules as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the changes are designed to “better reflect the different risk profiles of NGT plants”, the Commission said today (5 July).

NGTs – a range of techniques that alter the genetic profile of an organism – did not exist in 2001 when EU legislation on GMOs came into effect. But a new variety of NGTs have been developed over the past decade due to advances in technology, the EC said, describing the techniques as “innovative tools that help increase the sustainability and resilience of our food system”.

It added: “They [NGTs] allow developing improved plant varieties that are climate resilient, pest resistant, that require less fertilisers and pesticides and can ensure higher yields, helping to cut the use and risk of chemical pesticides in half, and reducing the EUs dependency on agricultural imports.

“In most cases, these new techniques lead to more targeted, precise, and faster changes than conventional techniques, while growing a crop that is the same as what could have been achieved with classic techniques like seed selection and crossbreeding.”

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By GlobalData

Under the new proposals, NGT plants that are comparable to naturally occurring or conventional equivalents will be subject to a verification process based on a certain set of criteria. They will be treated like conventional plants and exempted from the current EU legislation on GMOs – “no risk assessment has to be made and they can be labelled in the same way as conventional plants”, the EC said.

The NGT plants falling into the second category, or those with more complex modifications, will remain subject to GMO rules, requiring a risk assessment and authorisation procedure.

Reacting to the GMO proposals, FoodDrinkEurope, an industry body across the EU, stressed the importance of educating consumers on the acceptance of “new plant-breeding techniques”.

Director general Dirk Jacobs said: “Innovation in plant breeding is a key driver in delivering more sustainable and resilient crops, more secure harvests and safe ingredients and food products. A positive EU regulatory framework for plants derived by certain NGTs is therefore a welcome development.

“Europe’s food and drink manufacturers purchase 70% of EU agricultural production and rely on access to a secure supply of quality, safe and sustainable ingredients. For their part, farmers need access to all tools to address ongoing and future challenges, notably climate change and plant diseases.”

The GMO proposals fall within the EU’s overall European Green Deal initiative of late 2019. They will now have to be debated by the EC and the European Parliament and go through the legislative procedure.

After a request by the EU’s European Council in 2019, the EC concluded in a study on NGTs in 2021 that “the current rules – mainly the existing GMO legislation – lags behind scientific and technological progress and do not sufficiently facilitate the development and placing on the market of innovative NGT products”.

The Commission said today: “Humans have been improving grains, fruits, vegetables ever since we started growing them. Plants have been crossed and selected to get the right characteristics to get better crops.

“New genomic techniques allow us to do exactly the same but faster and with more precision. The techniques identify and select the right characteristics from the plant’s own DNA or from a related plant. Breeders can then use NGTs to develop new characteristics or improve existing plants with greater precision and speed than with conventional breeding techniques.”