As soon as the subject of plant biotechnologies is broached, the debate heats up. The ‘antis’ have now latched on to NBTs "New breeding techniques". We spoke with Agnès Ricroch, a genetics professor at AgroParisTech. She offers us a global panorama of the situation and the issues at stake with these new breeding techniques.
In Europe and particularly in France, biotechnology is a controversial topic. This is mostly because of the debates on GMOs which have persisted for decades and where supporters and detractors have still not reached a consensus. But today’s field of knowledge and possibilities make GMOs look like they’re from the prehistoric period. NBTs or new plant breeding techniques offer new perspectives. The most famous of them, CRISPR-Cas9, earned Emmanuelle Charpentier, French geneticist and biochemist, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. Put simply, this is a so-called ‘gene editing’ technique which, without adding exogenous genetic material, allows genes to be expressed or suppressed.
The CRISPR-Cas9 system is used naturally by bacteria to identify DNA sequences and cut them at a very precise location. We have an alphabet to make words and sentences that could be likened to ‘genes’, i.e. a succession of words that makes sense. The CRISPR system is able to recognize the sentences and cut the specific word that does not suit it into two. Either it makes a repair that makes no sense (gibberish), or it recreates a word that does makes sense and is of interest to us.
This sequence may be a known allele in the line, but it may also be an allele that the species does not naturally have, and this is where legislators wonder about the very definition of this practice. Is it comparable to transgenesis? For now, European legislators are saying yes.
Europe against the tide
In 2021, Japan became the first country to authorize the marketing of a product obtained using the Crispr method; a GABA-enriched tomato (relaxing while lowering blood pressure). A symbolic act but one which illustrates the way other countries are seizing these technologies. “The Chinese are clearly leaders in this field judging from the number of patent applications they file. They have simplified regulatory barriers to get a head start on the rest of the world. Their goal is food sovereignty and the commercial benefits they could derive from it. Closer to home, the United Kingdom has also taken a major legislative step to simplify access to these new technologies”, sums up Agnès Ricroch, Lecturer in genetics at AgroParisTech and the University of Paris-Saclay and adds “These advances apply everywhere in the world and it makes no difference whether it is North or South America.Their philosophy is to evaluate the result not the technique used to obtain it”. Many plant species such as rice, wheat, soybean, potato, tomato, citrus fruits… are affected by these selection methods. “Progress in genomics results in many new possibilities. All that is required is for a species to be sequenced and if there are agronomic and societal interests such as nutritional enhancement, agronomists and geneticists work together to develop new species using these methods”, says the researcher. A look through the literature reveals that the main traits selected concern resistance to herbicides and to various biotic and abiotic stress situations, but also traits of agronomic interest (yield, plant architecture) and nutritional enhancement.
In Europe, in the summer of 2018 the Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed the application of European regulations on GMOs to all plant breeding methods developed after 2001. This means that varieties obtained through technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 are considered to be GMOs. “European legislators seems to be going against the current on this subject. Despite recommendations made by several scientific bodies, especially by the European association of agricultural academies in January 2022, the review timetable is constantly being postponed”, laments Agnès Ricroch. “The ‘antis’ have their own political agenda. And some are members of European bodies. They believe that plant improvement should be left up to farmers and not in the hands of industrial-breeders. Which in my view is completely Utopian.”
Encouraging the emergence of new players
And in the view of Agnès Ricroch, it is precisely by not changing the regulations that research is concentrated in the hands of the biggest companies. Indeed, maintaining a GMO-type regulation means astronomical costs for companies to file applications making it inaccessible for small players. “Thanks to NBTs, breeding costs have been reduced by a factor of around 6. This allows new players to emerge. Changing the regulations could, therefore, have exactly the opposite effect, i.e. breaking up the oligopoly of the multinationals in this field”, she insists. “The emergence of start-ups or smaller breeders would pave the way for greater social acceptance since they would offer other traits in other plants on the market”.
The specialist regrets that taboos still exist with regard to genomic research. “Transgenesis work dates back more than half a century. Today, thanks to high-throughput phenotyping and the power of algorithms, we are able to forge further ahead in exploration while providing guarantees of safety for the environment and health. We must stop debating about techniques and focus instead on the benefits that these new technologies can bring for the agro-ecological transition”, concludes Agnès Ricroch.