New Breeding Techniques- what are NBTs and why do they matter?
The Commission is currently working on their legal assessment of whether eight New Breeding Technologies (NBTs) sit within or outside of existing GMO legislation. This will determine how these new techniques should be regulated, a process that was initiated in 2007. So what are NBTs, what could they mean for farming and what’s happening at an EU level?
New Breeding Technologies
Although NBTs are largely still at the research stage they may have great potential when they are commercialised although this largely depends on how they are regulated.
The eight techniques being looked at are:
- Oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM)
- Zinc-Finger 1/2 (ZFN 1/2),Zinc Finger 3 (ZFN3)
- RNA-induced methylation or RNA-induced epigenetic Mutation (RdDM)
- Cisgenesis and intragenesis
- Grafting on a GMO rootstock
- Reverse Breeding
- Synthetic genomics
Currently there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how these techniques will be regulated as although precise and targeted genome editing would not occur naturally the genetic changes generated, at least in their simplest forms, generate mutations that are indistinguishable from those arising spontaneously in nature or through some forms of conventional breeding.
What’s the potential?
With climate change and an ever increasing human population innovation in plant breeding is more important than ever. Through traditional plant breeding yields are roughly increased by 1-2% a year for some crops meaning that between 1990 and 2000 global food production increased by 25%. However, according to the Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, actual yields for the main food crops are well below potential yields in many regions, with yield gaps in many developing countries in excess of 50%.
New Breeding Techniques can be used to deliver characteristics that all plant breeders aim for such as increased yields, insect and disease resistance and climatic tolerance which is highly important in an increasingly volatile world.
NBTs also have the potential to reduce the cost and time of bringing new products to market, in part because these techniques can reduce the number of unwanted traits that may be added during the breeding process and subsequently need to be removed as is the case for traditional breeding techniques.
One of the greatest areas of potential for these techniques is that because some are relatively easy, quick and cheap in comparison to traditional methods they allow breeders to focus more on ‘niche’ plants, localised growing conditions and to react more quickly to the changing needs and wants of growers and consumers.
There are also benefits for consumers, these technologies can enhance nutrient content, increase shelf life through the reduction of oxidation and bruising and improve colour, odour, flavour and texture.
What’s happening at an EU level?
Whilst there is huge potential for these new technologies to benefit the agricultural industry progress to clarify the regulation of these technologies has been slow at the EU level. This is because there is uncertainty to the extent of which some of these techniques are GM and if they should be regulated as such. The European Union considers an organism to be genetically modified if it has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. Many of these new technologies rely on the mechanisms that can be triggered through traditional breeding techniques and although the mutations generated may not have occurred naturally, the end product is indistinguishable from those arising naturally or through conventional mutation breeding.
Accordingly many organisations do not believe that these methods fall under the definition of GMO as the technique is comparable to methods already excluded from the regulation or the technique leads to plants that contain no foreign DNA.
When might a decision be made?
The European Commission was expected to publish legal guidance on NBTs in the first quarter of 2016 having delayed the legal decision that had previously been expected in November 2015 but, was delayed to allow the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development to have a hearing on “New Techniques for Plant Breeding” on 1st December 2015.
When a decision will be made is unclear but seems unlikely to be made before the back end of 2016.
What’s happening elsewhere in the world?
In May 2015 Argentina became one of the first countries to make a resolution on the regulatory status of NBTs publicly. NBTs in Argentina are classed as ‘modern biotechnology’ and will therefore be reviewed on a case by case basis. Brazil is still in the process of reviewing the techniques. Australia and New Zealand are discussing the technology but their competent authorities have not published a position, although this is expected shortly. In India NBTs are not considered to be captured by their GMO regulation and will be reviewed on a state by state level. US regulatory bodies are not expected to take a definitive position and will review NBTs on a case by case basis. Canada considers NBTs to be adequately covered by its domestic legislation and regulation. Japan, Korea and South Africa have all shown interest in the technologies and are at various stages of reviewing the science.
When might products from these techniques be on the market?
Launched in the United States in 2014 and available in Canada from 2016 Cibus’s SU Canola is the first commercial product resulting from New Breeding Techniques. The company is already working on different products such as a herbicide resistant flax.
Other products are close to commercialisation too- a cisgeneic Phytophthora resistant potato may be only 5-10 years away, powdery mildew resistant wheat and blight resistant rice have been bred. Soy bean oil that is higher in mono-unsaturated fatty acids and lower in polyunsaturated fatty acids, and therefore better for human consumption has been produced by scientists.
Further information on New Breeding Techniques can be found here: http://www.nbtplatform.org/documentation