Innovation makes a huge difference, also in agriculture. Just look at the humble sugar beet. Today, thanks to innovation in plant breeding, sugar beet yields and crop quality have improved remarkedly in Europe compared to what they were over 100 years ago.
In addition to yields over 15 times larger today than they were in the mid-19th century, other improvements include improved disease and pest resistance as well as nutrient efficiency.
In essence, agricultural progress allows us to produce on 1.8 million ha today what otherwise would have taken 26.6 million ha – a progress of which 50 percent can be attributed to plant breeding, thereby sparing millions of hectares of precious land and inputs.
So, who could ever doubt that innovations in breeding are economically and ecologically viable?
Yet, we know the challenges facing farmers across the board are tremendous, ranging from climate change with more extreme weather patterns to new pests and diseases.
Population growth, water scarcity and the diminishing availability of agricultural land all add to the need for more sustainable agriculture. Plant breeders consider this multitude of challenges when developing new varieties, and growing complexity in innovation cycles results in a steady increase of R&D intensity: KWS, for example, spends 18.5 percent of sales each year on research and breeding.
Plant breeding research today is highly sophisticated. KWS R&D expenses for sugar beet have gone up by over 89 percent over the past 10 years alone.
Between 2011 and 2017, the amount of data processed by the KWS R&D and sugar beet breeding department increased 50 fold, up from 20.4 Mio. data points to 1119.2 Mio. data points.
However, we know that research is worthwhile. All KWS sugar beet varieties today carry multiple traits thanks to our efforts. But keeping up this progress in Europe is likely to become increasingly difficult, especially in light of the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling on mutagenesis, which equates plants developed with targeted methods of mutagenesis, such as CRISPR/Cas, with GMOs.
The newest breeding methods such as CRISPR/Cas which could reduce the average timeframe of bringing a new sugar beet variety to the market by 20-30 percent are now stifled in terms of their adoption and use in Europe.
CRISPR/Cas is an attractive tool for plant breeders, because it offers us the opportunity to reap and create genetic diversity in plants in a much more precise and faster manner than traditional methods. Integrating it into our breeding programs requires additional understanding and research, both from the private and the public sector.
We know that today, with Europe reliant on imported GMOs for its livestock sector, it costs upwards of €11-17m to get a mere import authorisation for a GMO and takes over 6 years for authorisation.
So speaking of the consequences from the European Court of Justice ruling, the facts are that each genome-edited product will have to undergo a lengthy and costly approval procedure, which takes two to three times longer to move through the regulatory system than variety registration alone.
Furthermore, such products would then face additional barriers in uptake, because two thirds of EU Member States have GMO opt-outs in place - leaving companies with zero business case. Finally, such heterogenic regulatory landscape from a global perspective negatively impacts the exchange of breeding material and ultimately threatens breeding progress.
At KWS, as an immediate consequence of the Court of Justice ruling, we have halted our R&D on an EU-targeted programme for fungal-resistant wheat. Instead, we have decided to continue technology and product development at full speed, but directed at overseas markets.
In that sense we can consider ourselves “lucky” because we have been able to shift our activities to other parts of the world. This situation leaves especially small and medium-sized enterprises in Europe at a competitive disadvantage.
The indirect effects of the Court of Justice ruling are less investment in R&D in Europe, including less public funding, more expected brain-drain, and a loss of scientific excellence and training in the EU.
As the Executive Board member in charge of Research and Breeding of a globally leading plant breeding company from Germany with strong roots in Europe, my objective is to contribute to the future of farming both in Europe and beyond.
But helping Europe and European growers to farm better with resource-saving seed varieties, requires more than just know-how. Sustainability starts with the seed, in the field. As a society we cannot afford to let go of the opportunities that plant breeding innovation can offer.
Enabling European SMEs and farmers to innovate and compete therefore also requires proportionate EU legislative frameworks to incentivise innovation and applied science.
Equating plants developed with new breeding methods when they do not carry transgenes to GMOs is a non-starter, because it only considers the breeding method, not the resulting plant.
What we need from a regulatory standpoint is a targeted amendment of the EU GMO Directive 2001/18 in order to clarify that mutagenesis-derived plants are not GMOs, and to avoid regulatory discrimination between ‘like-products’.
With its ruling, the European Court of Justice has passed the ball back to the European Commission and the member states. It is now up to the legislator to come around and make that necessary clarification before the ship has sailed for Europe.