The ESA (European Seed Association) held its Annual Conference in Madrid this week. It was attended by more than 1,000 participants from 47 countries, representing nearly 500 companies that work in the research, production and marketing of seeds.
During the meeting, decisive issues were addressed for the sector, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, the repercussions of Brexit, the fraudulent use of seeds, research and improvement of plants, GMO, biodiversity or plant health. However, the biggest issue is last June's ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Communities, which has resulted in the plant varieties modified through the CRISPR/Cas9 technology (genomic edition) being equated to the rest of genetically modified organisms.
Scientific and sectoral unanimity in favor of CRISPR
CRISPR is a technique that makes it possible to select and modify genes with a previously unknown speed and precision. Practically the entire scientific community stands behind it, but some environmental groups are against it.
In the course of a press conference, Dr. Pío Beltrán, Research Professor of the CSIC in the Institute of Plant Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMCP), said that "the scientific community is surprised and disgusted." He explained that the rejection to CRISPR is based on the same beliefs that already caused the ban on transgenic crops in Europe, but stressed that "scientists know without any doubt that the CRISPR genomic editing technique cannot be equated to that of transgenic crops. This is very clear when the CRISPR technique is used to cause mutations identical to those that occur randomly in nature, and which gives the crop a characteristic of interest to consumers. The varieties must be evaluated for what they are, not for the technology used to obtain them." Human beings have been selecting and modifying the genes of plants since agriculture was invented, and "science has only developed techniques and knowledge to make this process faster, safer and more sustainable. CRISPR is one of them, with obvious and indisputable advantages from a scientific point of view."
The ESA says that this judicial decision entails "unacceptable socio-economic risks for both plant improvement, the agro-food chain in general, consumers and our European environment." He argues that, with this ruling, the Court of Justice of the European Communities is causing serious damage to the scientific research in which European breeders have been investing, and that now 20 million Euro will have to be paid merely for the regulatory costs of each variety that is registered. In addition, the Court has placed "growers, processors, traders and consumers at a competitive disadvantage compared to those of other regions." Also recently, EuropaBio, the association of European biotechnology companies, called this ruling "a step back," adding that "the 1,000 million Euro invested by the States and companies for the use of CRISPR in agriculture will now not yield any practical results for European farmers." According to the ESA, closing the door to the CRISPR technique "will prevent Europe from moving forward in the development of new varieties of better adapted plants, with better yields and resistant to pests and diseases. It is also a hurdle to innovation for the prevention of climate change and the pursuit of a healthier and more sustainable agro-food system."
An absurd and unjustified contradiction
For his part, Antonio Villarroel, Secretary General of ANOVE (National Association of Vegetable Producers) said that "Europe seems unconcerned with agriculture once again, letting the train of innovation pass. With decisions like this, Europe is losing competitiveness, which is bad for the entire agro-food industry. This also leads to the delocalisation of research on seeds to other less restrictive countries. The contradiction is that, at the same time, European citizens are allowed to consume food produced through CRISPR by non-EU countries, "which is absurd and totally unjustified.
Research in plant improvement, the great priority for the breeding sector
The development of seeds carried out by the companies that obtain them depends largely on research and innovation; consequently, between 20% and 30% of their turnover are invested in these. According to data from the European Commission, this share of investment in R & D exceeds, proportionally, even that of automotive, pharmaceutical, aerospace or information technology companies.
In Europe, companies dedicated to obtaining seeds have 750 research centers, 52 of which are located in Spain. In fact, 81% of the companies associated with ANOVE have their own R & D department. In the Spanish case, the production ratio per worker amounts to 230,000 Euro / year. This high figure is due to the high technological qualification of the more than 800 researchers from the companies that operate in Spain, according to the data provided by the ANOVE itself.
Seeds are high technology products with a high added value. That is why the ESA is convinced that the continuous advances in science and technological development are precisely what provides the tools to improve plants and develop new varieties quickly and efficiently, thus helping to meet the needs of growers and consumers, while protecting the environment.