Head-to-head: Yes, the EU should allow for the use of NGTs in plants

Amidst calls for the EU to adopt less cumbersome regulations for certain gene-editing techniques, Diana Lenzi, president of the European Council of Young Farmers, argues that NGTs could benefit the environment and bolster the resilience of Europe's farms
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By Diana Lenzi

Diana Lenzi is the president of the European Council of Young Farmers

05 Jan 2023

As young farmers, we are determined to move forward towards greater agri-environmental balance and socio-economic resilience, and we are open to and curious about new solutions that could enable and support us in these efforts.

Based on the strong belief that there is no single pathway to sustainability in agriculture, new genomic techniques (NGTs) – specifically targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis techniques – constitute one of the tools that could not only support farmers in their contribution to the transition, but also benefit society as a whole.

The droughts of 2022 and previous years, the higher frequency and intensity of adverse weather events, and the overall uncertainty for farmers as the climate crisis worsens all call for tools that would benefit the environment and bolster the socio-economic resilience of farms. NGTs could support farmers in their environmental action, by improving nitrogen efficiency, reducing the sector’s carbon footprint and producing plants that require less water, fertilisers and plant protection products.

Such technology could benefit biodiversity and help mitigate climate change while also improving the economic health of farms by requiring less inputs and guaranteeing more certainty and increased resilience to pests and other hazards. It is also possible that NGTs could improve the nutritional quality of certain products, for example by reducing toxins and allergens, or help preserve traditional varieties that have been impacted severely by climate change.

For such benefits to be realised, comprehensive regulation is required. It is not only about allowing the use of NGTs in plants, but also about enabling the right conditions so that the accessibility and affordability of these new technologies are guaranteed for farmers. We need a balanced, transparent and competitive environment that prioritises farmers’ freedom of choice and places their knowledge at the forefront.

Future legislation must thus ensure that every farmer maintains their right to choose the seeds they want to sow, whether NGT or non-NGT seeds, which calls for full transparency from input dealers and seed providers. Moreover, additional investment in public research and knowledge sharing would allow a greater diversity of findings and actors involved in the field.

Future legislation must ensure that every farmer maintains their right to choose the seeds they want to sow, whether NGT or non-NGT seeds

From a regulatory point of view, a first step would be to provide a clear definition of NGTs, to clarify the scope of the new legislation and to ensure that every stakeholder is on the same page. Young farmers favour a new legal framework, separate from the 20-year-old framework for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), allowing for a more precise regulation of targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis techniques.

The success or failure of the regulation will also mainly depend on the monitoring system that will be put into place, not only when it comes to placing NGT seeds on the market, but also when it comes to ensuring the relevance of the techniques, justifying the additional cost for farmers and reporting to consumers and civil society.

Last but not least, it is essential to harmonise any regulation of NGTs with European Union trade policy. Regulating these techniques in the EU would guarantee better traceability if it were also possible to detect the import of this technology.