Irma Vijn, HollandBio

EU threatens to halt innovation in breeding

Breeding fruits and vegetables has been going on for centuries. Irma Vijn, policy adviser at Holland BIO, proved this by showing pictures of ancient crops in her presentation at the quality risks seminar that was organized by N&S and the Fresh Produce Center (GroentenFruit Huis). With a network of 120 member companies, HollandBIO helps biotechnology companies, from start-ups to multinational companies, "We mainly focus on politics and the government to help our members with regulations and social acceptance," says Irma. 

Modern breeding
The discovery of DNA in the 1970's led to growth in new techniques, which are used to accelerate the breeding process. According to Irma, putting products on the market, that are made using these techniques, is not easy, "The legislation for this is still based on one of the first new techniques, namely genetic modification."

The name given to creating products using this technique is GMOs, "The most well known GMOs are the herbicide Round-up and the beetle feeding resistant (Bt) corn and soy. Resistance to these crops is very strong in Europe and the beetle feeding resistant crops are still not allowed in Europe, "In my opinion the resistance to GMOs is mainly emotional, and the ethical objection has long been overtaken by widespread use. Genetically modified crop yields are 21.6% higher than non-GMO crop yields and require 36.9% less pesticides. According to figures, growers have seen a 68.2% increase in their income. In addition, you can use the new breeding techniques to improve the quality and nutritional value of the crops. Because the lab can cross breed in a way that does not occur in nature, the biodiversity of breeding is also increased. Finally, the new techniques make it possible to breed in a much more precise and refined way, and the average processing time of ten years for a new variety has been reduced to five years."

Access to market for GMO products
Once finished in the lab, the product has to go through a long process with various authorities before it can be put on the market. Irma describes the arduous process through the European offices, "After the European Food and Safety approval (EFSA), the European Commission drafts a concept approval. This is presented to a committee of the individual member states. If they are not able to come to a decision, the proposal goes back to the European Commission, via the European Council of Ministers, for the final judgement. Although the official time frame for these projects is 1.5 years, this always takes longer. The average time frame has risen to 6.5 years. This applies to both the import of products for use in animal feed and food for consumers. Applications for crops takes much longer, usually 10 to 12 years." Food that contains more than 0.9% of these allowed genetically modified products must be labelled in Europe. 

Access to market for new non-GMO techniques 
In recent years many new breeding techniques have been developed, and the legal framework for admission to the market for these new techniques is still unclear. The technique is first classified as genetically modified or not. If it is, then it must go through the long process described above. If not, then it falls under the Novel Foods Regulation, "This process is similar to the process for genetically modified techniques, except it does not take as long. Within this process there are two application routes that can be followed, a complete application or an abridged version. With the abridged version the developer only has to submit a notification. A requirement for the abridged route is that the product must be substantially similar to a product that is already on the market. If this is not the case then the complete route has to be taken, which usually takes approximately 2 to 6 years. The advantage of these two routes is that the product is spared the negative association with GMOs." 

Innovation stagnating
"The length of the application process and the bureaucratic tape, along with the negative image of GMOs within Europe, can deter companies from applying certain types of breeding," says Irma. But she does see a ray of hope, "There are plans in Europe to accelerate the process. But with the current decision-making process, this can take some time. Many companies have had enough of the long wait times, and this means that innovation in the field of breeding will eventually come to a standstill."

More information:
Irma Vijn
T: 006 30 27 98 61

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