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Commission's top scientific advisers publish explanatory note on new techniques in agricultural biotechnology

Brussels, 28 April 2017

The High Level Group of the Commission's Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) has published an independent Explanatory Note on ‘New Techniques in Agricultural Biotechnology’

Following the request of Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, the scientific advisers provide a detailed scientific description of the full spectrum of agricultural breeding techniques used in plants, animals and microorganisms. Drawing on the best available scientific reviews, expert opinions and reports, the document describes and compares the new techniques with conventional breeding techniques and with established techniques of genetic modification.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety said: "If we are to continue to ensure the highest health and food safety standards for our citizens we need an informed public debate among all stakeholders addressing the challenges and opportunities related to innovation in the agro-food sector. The scientific description of the full spectrum of agricultural breeding techniques published by the SAM High Level Group today will contribute to this wider debate and the discussion that I will be initiating later this year."

Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: "This comprehensive scientific comparison of the various breeding techniques demonstrates the value of the Scientific Advice Mechanism. I am sure that citizens, policy makers, scientists, and a host of other stakeholders will welcome this independent, balanced, and up to date scientific reference work, which will inform future discussions in this area."

The main observations are:

  • The new techniques in agricultural biotechnology (which include genome editing and others) differ significantly from each other, and their grouping together is not optimal from a scientific and technical point of view.
  • Often, the new techniques are used in combination with conventional breeding or with established techniques of genetic modification.
  • The new techniques are very versatile and can make a number of types of changes to plants, animals and microorganisms. These can include the insertion of genes from the same or other species but also the direct modification of an organism's own genetic sequence in a precise and targeted way, without the addition of DNA to the genome of end-products. Some new techniques do not make changes to genetic sequences at all.
  • This precision and control over changes made is greater than with the use of conventional breeding or established techniques of genetic modification. As a consequence, these new techniques result in fewer unintended effects.
  • Assessments of the safety (environmental, health, etc.) of the organisms produced by the new techniques can only be made on a case-by-case basis taking into account, amongst others: the specific mutation; unintended effects; the species into which the mutation is introduced; the environment in which the end product is used; the agricultural practice applied, and its planned use and exposure.

The Note will be used by the Commissioners to support public debate with stakeholders including a high level conference on modern biotechnologies in agriculture which the Commission is organising in Brussels, 28 September, 2017.

Background

The Explanatory Note draws on a comprehensive review of publicly available scientific literature, in which the High Level Group was assisted by experts nominated by the five European Academy Networks - All European Academies (ALLEA), Academia Europaea, European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), European Council of Academies of Applied Sciences, Technologies and Engineering (Euro-CASE) and Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM).

Conventional breeding techniques include for instance sexual crosses and mutation breeding while established techniques of genetic modification are transformation in plants and microorganisms and transfection in animals. The new techniques covered in the report include: genome editing (oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis and site-directed nucleases), cisgenesis/ intragenesis, agro-infiltration, RNA-dependent DNA methylation, grafting, and reverse breeding.

On the Scientific Advice Mechanism:

The Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) was established in October 2015 to contribute to the quality of EU legislation in line with the Commission's Better Regulation Agenda and complements the existing science advisory structures of the Commission, including the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The reports and opinions are prepared under the responsibility of a High Level Group of Scientific Advisors comprising seven independent eminent scientists. The Group draws on the best available scientific expertise and evidence, inter alia through a close relationship with European and national academies.

The High Level Group is currently also working on opinions on "Food from the Oceans", due by the end of 2017, and on "Authorisation processes of plant protection products in Europe", expected by November 2017. It has already delivered opinions on "Closing the gap between light duty vehicle real world CO2 emissions and laboratory testing", on "Cybersecurity in the European Digital Single Market" and an Explanatory Note on glyphosate.