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‘It’s time to use the potential of new genomic techniques.’

Plant biologist Thomas Ott is interviewed on the upcoming vote in the EU Parliament on regulation of new genomic techniques in plant breeding.

Freiburg, Jan 23, 2024

‘It’s time to use the potential of new genomic techniques.’

Thomas Ott Image: Michal Rössler/University of Freiburg

Professor Ott, on Wednesday, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) will vote in the EU Parliament on regulation of new genomic techniques in plant breeding. What, exactly, is that about?

The committee is voting on whether the current regulatory processes for what are known as NGT-1 plants should be changed. Until now, these have been included in the law on genetically modified organisms (GMO). Now the question is if these plants should be removed from this law. If so, they would be made equivalent to plants produced through conventional breeding methods. This would then impact whether these plants could be raised and marketed as food in Europe. NGT-1 plants are plants bred through new genetic engineering methods (new genomic techniques, NGT) but which do not contain genetic material from a foreign, non-crossable species. Among them are, for example, plants produced with the help of genetic scissors CRISPR/Cas. This technology can be used to create targeted mutations in an individual gene, for example to increase the yield of the plant variety

Why have NGT-1 plants been subject to stricter regulations up to now?

The differentiation is founded on a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union dating back to 2018. It states that NGT-1 plants are to be classified as genetically modified organisms. This means they are just as strictly regulated as NGT-2 plants, meaning plants in which, for example, entire genes have been removed or genes from other species have been inserted. At that time, the EU justified this by saying all changes in the genome introduced using new genetic engineering methods would not occur “naturally”. But there’s a very clear scientific consensus this statement is untenable for NGT-1 plants. And that’s why there’s renewed debate about it now in the EU.

What are the possible consequences of the vote?

It will have really far-reaching effects on European agriculture. That’s because an approval of NGT-1 technologies can rapidly accelerate the breeding process which would be very important. After all, it currently takes ten to fifteen years for a plant variety developed through conventional breeding to come onto the market. And this process is necessary to adapt already existing varieties to new agricultural challenges, be it climate change or the necessity of getting higher yields to ensure global food security. NGT-1 technologies could make these developments take place extremely rapidly. That’s why it’s time to use the potential of new genomic techniques.

What do you expect from the vote?

I hope the representatives vote on the basis of the scientific data. Because there’s no evidence NGT-1 plants are in any way any less safe than plants bred conventionally. You also need to know that conventional breeding produces even more changes in the genetic material. Despite that, I assume that the vote will be very close. I hope, however, that it’s positive and NGT-1 plants will in future be excluded from the law on genetically modified organisms.

You are active in basic research and examine molecular signalling processes in plants. Will the vote in the EU Parliament influence your research and its application?

Not immediately. Because what we’re examining in the lab won’t yet be found in a field tomorrow. But in the long term, it will definitely have consequences. For one, it will determine if we can orient our research towards applications. Meaning, if we’ll keep trying to translate the results we achieve in basic research into applications. I’m convinced this translation of achievements of basic research is extremely important for driving innovation. The second point is the question of the extent to which we’ll be allowed to join alliances with the aim of making plants more robust, for example against environmental influences, by using genomic techniques. If the decision is that NGT-1 plants remain strictly regulated, you can expect the European funding landscape will distance itself from this type of research in the long term. That would mean we’d leave to others this area of enquiry and all its potential. By doing that, we’d be throwing away our own, independent opportunity to make our agriculture more robust and sustainable. That’s a chance that’s definitely too good to let go.


Prof Dr Thomas Ott is a member of the Cluster of Excellence CIBSS - Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies of the University of Freiburg. He is investigating the symbiosis between certain species of plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. His research results are creating the foundation for the future development of self-fertilising plants which have the potential to reduce the use of industrial fertilisers world-wide. He is also a member of the international research network ENSA, which is investigating the feasibility of such a development.


Thomas Ott is available for media enquiries.


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