Growing scientific progress

Written by Martina Helmlinger and Lilli Schütz on 25 July 2019 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

Students Martina Helmlinger and Lilli Schütz tell us why they are launching a Citizens’ Initiative to ensure the EU can benefit responsibly from new plant breeding techniques.

Photo Credit: Ana-Maria Alexandru/Mačin Mountains, Rumania

Since the domestication of crops around 12,000 years ago, our success has been strongly linked to agricultural progress.

In light of climate change, population growth and the emergence of new pests, the optimisation of crops is now more important than ever.

Crop optimisation means making genetic changes which, until recently, has been a time-consuming process, depending either on natural or randomly induced mutations.

Now, new breeding techniques (NBTs) have opened the door for more precise, targeted and predictable outcomes.


Plants can now be optimised with NBTs to resist emerging pests and droughts, to require less nutrients, or to yield safer and more nutritious food.

Moreover, most crops developed using mutagenesis-based NBTs are indistinguishable from crops with natural genetic changes.

Regrettably, the EU has been missing out on these innovative techniques because of disproportionately burdensome authorisation requirements established in Directive 2001/18/EC.

This Directive, which governs genetically modified organisms (GMOs), now also applies to mutagenesis-based NBTs following a European Court of Justice Ruling last year.

The Directive, in place for almost two decades, does not take into account the invention of NBTs ten years ago nor the scientific progress made in safety assessment.

Moreover, politicians, legal scholars, breeders and other scientists have criticised the Directive for disproportionality and a lack of well-founded scientific reasoning.

"Crop optimisation means making genetic changes which, until recently, has been a time-consuming process, depending either on natural or randomly induced mutations"

In particular, the technique-based classification scheme established in the Directive has imposed an overly strict risk assessment on products of NBTs.

This has resulted in an implicit ban of crops developed with these novel techniques throughout the EU.

Despite the ongoing criticism, the European Commission has not yet updated the Directive and the EU now risks missing out on the benefits of these innovative techniques.

A timely revision of the Directive is needed to allow for the use and improved governance of NBTs in the EU.

Therefore, we have submitted a proposal for updating the Directive in the form of a European Citizens’ Initiative, published today, on the anniversary of last year’s court ruling.

We propose merging several policy options to update the EU’s regulatory system governing GMOs.

In particular, we call for a clear distinction of mutagenesis-based NBTs and conventional GMOs.

"We call for a clear distinction of mutagenesis-based NBTs and conventional GMOs"

Furthermore, we demand a more product-based risk assessment of the resulting organisms rather than a technique-based assessment.

We therefore suggest the establishment of a positive list of safe species-specific traits.

Products of NBTs should then require notification rather than authorisation if they include only traits on this positive list.

Overall, our changes to the Directive result in lower assessment stringency for products which are indistinguishable from those obtained through traditional breeding.

At the same time, the strict risk assessment requirements for organisms and products with novel traits are retained.

Ultimately, our goal is to unite and represent EU citizens who welcome responsible scientific progress as we need joint efforts to effect changes to the legislation.

To that end, we aim to collect no less than one million signatures from EU citizens.

Given their support, our initiative may pave the way for a more science-based, proportionate and responsible governance of NBTs.

We believe this much-needed change will foster more efficient, sustainable and resource-friendly agriculture across the EU.


For more information you can visit:

You can also follow this campaign on Twitter:

About the author



Left - Martina Helmlinger, Right - Lilli Schütz

Martina Helmlinger is pursuing a Master’s degree in Food Safety within the Euroleague for Life Sciences network at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Lilli Schütz is pursuing a Master’s degree in Crop Sciences at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands.

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