New Breeding Techniques Platform

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Frequently asked questions

1) What are New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)?

New breeding techniques are methods that allow the plant breeding industry to develop new plant varieties in a similar—but faster and more precise—manner compared to conventional breeding techniques, and to effectively overcome a number of limitations of conventional breeding.

Since research into novel techniques of plant breeding is ongoing and evolving continuously, there is no finite set of NBTs and future techniques may be put under the same ‘umbrella term’. The NBT Platform has chosen to focus on the seven principal NBTs as proposed by the EU Competent Authorities to the New Techniques Working Group[1], as well as by the Joint Research Commission in their respective reports on NBTs[2].

These seven techniques are:

1. Site-Directed Nucleases (SDN) (as representative of a growing group of related techniques including amongst others Zinc Finger Nuclease-1/2/3, TALENs, Meganucleases and CRISPR systems)

2. Oligonucleotide Directed Mutagenesis (ODM)

3. Cisgenesis

4. RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM)

5. Grafting (non-GM scion on GM rootstock)

6. Reverse breeding

7. Agro-infiltration (Agro-infiltration ‘sensu stricto’, Agro-inoculation)

[1] New Techniques Working Group. (2011). New Techniques Working Group Final Report. New Techniques Working Group/European Commission.

[2] JRC/IPTS/IHCS. (2012). New plant breeding techniques. State-of-the-art and prospects for commercial development. Luxembourg: Publications office of the European Union.

2) Why use NBTs in plant or seed breeding?

NBTs are innovative tools that enable plant breeders to develop novel plant varieties that may provide solutions for environmental and food quality as well as food supply challenges. Conventional plant breeding generally relies on techniques of which the outcome is difficult to predict, requiring between seven and twenty five years, depending on the species, to generate the desired characteristics and to introduce these into stable and uniform new plant varieties.

NBTs allow the plant breeding industry to produce plant varieties in a similar – but more precise - manner compared to conventional breeding techniques, in a significantly shorter timeframe.

The precise increase in speed depends on the species of plant, the desired property and in some cases, the technique used. For example, scab-resistant apples have been produced by use of cisgenesis in approximately 12 years, compared to an exceptionally long period of 50 years with conventional breeding techniques. A rough estimate is that NBTs decrease the breeding timeframe by 50%.

It can be anticipated that, as science on NBTs progresses and breeders start practically using these techniques, further refinements and efficiencies will be found, which will lead to additional reduction of the plant breeding lead time.

NBTs are of utmost importance for seed and plant breeders in Europe, as they provide them with a ‘toolbox’ of innovative plant breeding methods alongside the traditional methods, which allow them to remain globally competitive. Most of the world’s research on NBTs was done in Europe, totalling to almost 46% of research published up to 2011[3].

[3] JRC/IPTS/IHCS. (2011). New plant breeding techniques. State-of-the-art and prospects for commercial development. Luxembourg: Publications office of the European Union; page  30, Table 1.

3) What products derived from the use of NBTs are currently being researched or developed?

Although development of new products and applications is ongoing, some products which are currently under development are;

  • Apples which do not turn brown after peeling, which leads to less food-waste;

  • Products with decreased allergens or anti-nutritional compounds;

  • Products with naturally occurring pest resistance, such as mildew-resistant wheat, phytophthora-resistant potatoes, scab-resistant apples, etc. These products all require less pesticides, which in turn leads to less environmental impact, lower pesticide residues, lower post-harvest losses and cost reduction for growers as well as for consumers.

Additionally, there is also potential for the use of NBTs to develop products for biobased applications, decreasing the industrial dependence on oil-based products.

These examples show just a fraction of the beneficial traits that NBTs can help us achieve in a shorter time frame when compared to conventional breeding.

4) What is the difference between the seven principal NBTs?

For an overview of the different techniques, please refer to the ‘New breeding techniques fact sheets’, which can be found in the Background documents section.

5) Can I buy food made by the use of NBTs in the EU?

Not yet. At this moment, the European Commission is reviewing whether NBTs fall under the European Union’s GMO legislation, specifically Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment, which provides the requirements to determine if something is considered a GMO or not. Until regulatory clarity is provided, the commercial application and sale of these products is hampered. However, many organisations worldwide use NBTs in their research and first commercial products have already reached the market, for instance in North America.

6) When does the NBT Platform expect products or crops made with NBTs to be commercialised?

There are several products that are ready to be marketed, but due to regulatory uncertainty, no crops made with NBTs have been placed on the market in the European Union.

Outside Europe, several products have been developed and have already been approved by the relevant national authorities, which means that they can be placed on the market. One example is a canola variety obtained through the use of ODM, for which developer Cibus received market approval in the US and Canada, and is expected for other countries worldwide in 2018.

7) Do NBTs lead to GMOs?

No, in most cases. Based on the legal analysis performed by the NBT Platform, it can be concluded that most products derived through the use of NBTs are not considered GMOs by the criteria set out in the European Union’s GMO legislation (Directive 2001/18/EC). For more information on the legal status of NBTs, please refer to the ‘Legal Briefing Paper summary document’, which can be found in the Background documents section.

8) Are NBTs important for Europe?

Yes they are. New plant breeding technologies can provide solutions for societal problems that are linked to our food supply, for instance by the decreased use of natural resources, reduced dependence on chemical crop protection, contribution to biodiversity, resources for biobased industries, and faster adaptation to changing environmental conditions.

On top of that, the agrofood chain, and ultimately the consumer, benefit by the development of products with beneficial traits in a much shorter timeframe and in a more precise manner. These benefits include higher quality products (resistance, shelf life, ease of processing), more diversity in products (market robustness, changing demand) and improved nutritional contents.

The European plant breeding industry is a world leader in terms of innovation, representing a market value of more around EUR 8,6 billion[5]. Additionally, of the more than 7000 companies in the EU seed sector, a significant portion (in some Member States up to 90%) are Small-to-Medium-Size Enterprises (SMEs), which are widely recognised as a major driver of innovation and economic growth.[6] Many of these companies depend on innovation and access to technology to remain competitive.

[5] ISF, International Seed Federation (2013). Estimated Value of the Domestic Seed Market in Selected Countries for the year 2012

[6] DG Internal Policies, ‘The EU seed and plant reproductive material market in perspective: A focus on companies and market shares’ (2013), online access: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/note/join/2013/513994/IPOL-AGRI_NT(2013)513994_EN.pdf

9) What is the benefit for consumers to use NBTs?

NBTs allow the rapid and precise development of plant products with benefits such as improved nutritional properties, different taste, reduced allergens, less food waste due to disease resistance, improved shelf-life, etc.

Many of these potential products can contribute to a more sustainable agro food-chain by reducing food waste, decreasing the need for pesticides, and developing products that are catered to a specific regional market.

10) Are products of NBTs safe for consumers?

Since the products resulting from most NBTs are similar to the products that can be obtained by traditional plant breeding techniques, they are also comparable in terms of food safety. This was confirmed by EFSA in their assessments of Cisgenesis and SDN-techniques.

NBTs that would result in products that fall under the requirements of the EU’s GMO legislation would have to comply with the food and environmental safety assessments as prescribed for GMOs.

General questions regarding the NBT Platform

1) Who are the Members of the NBT Platform?

The NBT Platform is a coalition of SMEs, large industry representatives and members of prominent academic and research institutes. A list of organisations that are currently a member of the NBT Platform can be found here.

2) How can an organisation become member of the Platform?

If you work at a company or research institute working with NBTs and you are interested in becoming a member, please contact us via info@nbtplatform.org

3) How is the NBT Platform funded?

The NBT Platform is financed entirely by its Members by means of a yearly membership fee.