What are NGTs and why are they sparking so much controversy in the EU?

The European Parliament has voted in favour of more relaxed regulation for the use of New Genomic Techniques, (NGTs), on plants. A decision that has ignited fiery debates. But what exactly are NGTs?

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The European Parliament is seeking to exempt certain plant varieties from the stringent rules governing New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). The method currently has similar regulation to that used for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). 

While supporters view this as an opportunity to cultivate more resilient seeds, critics have raised concerns about the potential risks associated the technique.

NGTs hold promise for creating plant varieties resistant to drought, pests, and diseases. But what exactly are these techniques? Professor Bendahmane, INRAE Research Director at ENS Lyon, is actively applying them to roses.

“These new technologies enable us to target genes within the genome with surgical precision, as though we were using scissors, in a very precise way, without impacting other parts of the genome. And we can introduce a function or improve the desired function. The time saved is substantial and it’s even more significant because it’s more precise and we will only target the part we want to improve.” he explained.

“The research on roses not only sheds light on their responses to temperature, benefitting ornamental and cosmetic rose cultivation, but it also provides valuable insights for other plants, particularly fruit trees, which are more challenging to study,” he added. “Many fruit trees are experiencing earlier flowering, disrupting pollination and leading to crop losses”.

Across Europe, this method is currently regulated in a similar way to GMOs. But how alike are the two techniques? Georges Freyssinet, President of the French Association of Plant Biotechnologies, clarifies:

“These technologies are totally different from the method we used before, because in transgenesis, a new gene is introduced, whereas now we simply modify an existing gene”.

“What we’re witnessing with climate change is a redistribution of diseases. Insects are migrating from south to north, and increased humidity is leading to a surge in fungal infections. Given these changes in nature, we need to respond more swiftly. These technologies, which expedite research and development, should enable us to develop plants that can adapt to future variations.”

But some farmers view these NGT-modified plants as potentially harmful to agriculture.

Christian Foilleret, a former farmer and an activist with the association Faucheurs Volontaires, holds this view. “NGTs are among my concerns and those of the Rural Confederation. It’s a major concern if this goes through, because it sets a precedent for patenting living things, with many potential abuses. We’ll be heading towards agriculture that is even more productivist and capitalist”.

But what solutions exist for farming in a warming world?

“There are alternative approaches available today. On my farm, I prioritise mastering existing techniques and adapting them to specific plants. We can’t grow just any crop anywhere – plants must be suited to their environment,” Foilleret explained. “Studies have even shown tomatoes thriving without water. But we keep neglecting plant research, in favour of genetic manipulation.”

In Europe, over the last 50 years, there has been a 30% decline in harvests, leading some to push for a change in the way agriculture is managed. However, despite the NGT method being used elsewhere in the world, the European Food Safety Authority has warned of potential safety concerns regarding its application.