The need for technological development in agriculture to achieve "sustainable intensification" is on the agenda of governments and international bodies. Innovation is also at the centre of the EU2020 strategy. New technologies and their adoption by EU farmers are key drivers in maintaining European agriculture competitive in a global world. While the potential of technological development for sustainability of agriculture is acknowledged, there is a global trend towards increased regulation of new technologies in agriculture, particularly bio-technologies that result in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), be it for concerns about their safety or ethical and societal concerns. By its own nature, the conception and development of policies governing technology needs strong scientific support.
The JRC is involved in anticipation and technological foresight on new technologies relevant for agriculture, notably in the area of crop improvement. Socio-economic evaluation of the crops derived from biotechnology for the EU farming and related economic sectors is another area of JRC research. The JRC also operates together with Member States two Bureaux, the European GMO Socio-Economics Bureau (ESEB) to define indicators and methodologies to produce socio-economic assessments and the European Coexistence Bureau (ECoB), producing guidelines for EU farming on technical segregation measures to achieve coexistence between GM, conventional and organic agriculture.
Emerging technologies in agriculture
The use of new technologies is occurring at fast pace, however with different level of advancement in the world, in particular for innovative breeding (new plant breeding techniques), but also other new technologies such as nanotechnologies.
The European Commission started in 2008 discussions on regulatory options for a number of "new plant breeding techniques" with the EU Member States. The JRC has reviewed the state-of-the-art of these techniques, their current adoption by the breeding sector and their prospects for a future commercialisation of crops based on them. The technologies discussed are various, including a number of "genome editing" or site-directed mutagenesis techniques as well as the use of epigenetics and gene silencing The JRC also supports policy makers by mapping the international use and regulatory approaches to these techniques.
New technological areas such as the application of nanotechnologies or nanomaterials in farming (for improved fertilizers and crop protection) are currently under research, including the state-of-the-art of R&D in this field, the drivers for possible adoption by EU agricultural sectors, and intellectual property issues.
Socio-economic assessment of GM crops for EU agriculture
The cultivation of GM crops can have a number of socio-economic impacts which are of increasing importance for policy-making. In 2012, the JRC set up the European GMO Socio-Economics Bureau (ESEB), a technical working group composed of Member States and Commission experts, to assist in identifying these impacts.
In 2011, the European Commission published a report based on Member States' contributions concluding that a set of indicators and methodologies for socio-economic impact assessment of GM crops should be defined. The mission of the ESEB is to organize and facilitate the exchange of related technical and scientific information between Member States and the Commission. On the basis of this process, the ESEB will develop Reference Documents that will enable a science-based assessment of these impacts in the Member States and across the EU.
Codes of practice for EU farmers to achieve coexistence of GM and non-GM supply chains
For those GM crops authorised for cultivation, EU coexistence policies include technical measures designed to minimise the economic impacts of admixture of genetically modified (GM) and non-GM agricultural supplies, without compromising the economic efficiency of farmers. The JRC, through the operation of the European Coexistence Bureau (ECoB), develops standards of best agricultural practices for coexistence to assist member states in developing national rules.
The European Coexistence Bureau (ECoB) was created in 2008 and is composed of JRC scientists and experts from Member States. It supports Member States in the development of standards best agricultural practices for the coexistence of GM and conventional crops. These best practices have to be crop specific and give flexibility for the different agricultural situations in Member States.
ECoB elaborated in the past best practices for maize coexistence,. The ECoB also created working groups to prepare best practices for the coexistence of GM and conventional potatoes and soybean in the EU. Finally, the ECoB develops technical guidance for agriculture in cross-border coexistence issues, when two neighbouring EU Member States differ in their technical coexistence specifications.