- To voice the opinions of plant science students and young plant researchers in the policy-making of NPBTs
- To engage in open dialogues with the general public about NPBTs
- To develop easy to understand and accessible information platforms for all interested
At the end of 2018, several young plant scientists started the GeneSprout Initiative to engage with both the general public and politicians on the scientific foundations of New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs). Read below what started our initiative and why we deeply believe that we need to have an open dialogue on the use of NPBTs.
The ruling that compelled us to act
In the summer of 2018, on July 25th, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) reviewed case C-528/16 and concluded that organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques should be regulated under the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) directive (2001/18/EC). In addition, the ECJ ruled that plants obtained by new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) are – in contrast to long-used, but much less precise mutagenesis techniques – not excluded from the GMOs directive. Like most of the scientific community, we assumed that this ruling meant that all NPBT-bred plants would be classified and subjected to the EU laws for GMOs. Since these laws are very strict, our interpretation of the ECJ ruling has been and still is hindering European agricultural innovation. As young researchers and citizens, we believe that NPBTs – with CRISPR at the forefront – can contribute to meeting the challenges we face today and tomorrow and, therefore, our voices need to be heard. That is why, at the end of 2018, we were compelled to come together and start the GeneSprout Initiative – an initiative by and for young EU researchers.
Are all NPBT-bred plants GMOs?
Although the ECJ ruling focused on which genetic techniques can yield GMOs – and concluded that this is the case for NPBTs – a plant can only be considered a GMO if it falls under the EU definition of a GMO in the first place. The GMO definition states that not only a genetic technique must have been used, but that the organism’s genetic material must have been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Bearing this in mind, it becomes obvious that a NPBT-bred plant with a single-letter DNA change – something that occurs frequently in nature – does not fall under the GMO definition. On the other hand, using a NPBT to add a gene from another species – something that is much less likely to occur naturally – results in a GMO (although recently it has become clear that this horizontal gene transfer occurs in nature more often than we were aware off). These two examples illustrate both extremes of a broad spectrum of DNA alterations that can be achieved using NPBTs. What is still unclear, is what kind of DNA alterations, which fall somewhere along this spectrum, do not occur naturally and therefore yield a GMO. Clarification is urgently needed.
Open dialogue is necessary
The ECJ ruling triggered a polarized debate between strong voices either in favor of or opposed to NPBTs, and CRISPR in particular. As scientists, and even more so as citizens, this ongoing debate on agricultural innovation has us deeply concerned. We fear that this debate, together with the current regulatory uncertainty around NPBTs, limits the potential benefits NPBTs can provide for our society and the environment. Many early-career plant researchers in Europe are passionate about developing more climate resilient and nutritious plant varieties, and NPBTs hold enormous potential to help us accomplish that. Given the current ecological and societal challenges we face, such innovation is urgently needed.
Our society deserves to be engaged in a dialogue that is open-minded and constructive when it comes to the use and regulation of NPBTs. We believe that in order to do so, we need to provide scientists, policy makers, and the general public alike with correct information on NPBTs. On top of that, we want to introduce them to the fascinating world of plant sciences in general. That’s how people can develop truly informed opinions and how we can inspire them to become part of the conversation. In order to increase public awareness and engagement, we initiated a platform that facilitates exactly that – the GeneSprout Initiative.