Alternative to GM breeding could help European growers

Herbicide-tolerant and disease-resistant crops could soon be grown in Europe following the discovery of a technique its developers claim should be classified as non-GMO.

Developed by Cibus, in San Diego, the technique induces the plant to change the genetic code in its own DNA to produce new traits.

Unlike genetically modified crops, it does not introduce new genes from outside the plant species.

A group of Belgian scientists reviewing the technology has already concluded that this crucial difference meant the technique could be considered outside the scope of the EU Directives on GMO crops, though they added that the final decision was “ultimately a matter of political and legal choices”.

Cibus president Keith Walker believed the technology was exempt under existing EU regulations.

“There is a consensus that it is not GMO technology under the classic transgenic terminology,” he said. “Already, the US Department of Agriculture has ruled it is not.”

If Europe were to follow suit and classify the technology as conventional breeding, that would pave the way for traits similar to those being developed for genetically modified crops, such as drought and herbicide tolerance, to be introduced.

The technology would still be regulated, Dr Walker said.

“Every product in agriculture, including those from conventional breeding, has other regulatory requirements. It just means our technology would be exempted from GMO rules.”

The system, in principle, could allow plant breeders to make targeted beneficial changes to key genes, said Ian Crute, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board chief scientist said.

“It is clearly not transgenic technology and, if it lives up to its promise, is an exciting new tool.

“However, its widespread application will depend on the way the technology is controlled and licensed, the response of regulators and, over time, producing evidence of reliable application across a range of crops.”

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