Conventional breeding already delivers sustainable, robust and low-risk solutions

Besides delivering higher yields and savings on fertilisers and pesticides, new genetic engineering is expected to produce plants that are better adapted to climate change. According to statements made by applicants, conventional breeding methods are very limited in their ability to produce plants with such properties, or only at considerable expense. In addition, it has been repeatedly emphasised that the introduction of NGTs will result in a considerable acceleration in plant breeding. Based on this reasoning, it is assumed that NGTs will be instrumental in achieving a more productive and sustainable future for agriculture.

A closer look at current international patent applications being filed for NGT plants that are important in sustainable agriculture and/or climate protection shows, that a great many of these patents actually describe conventional breeding methods (including random mutagenesis). Many of the plants have properties that were achieved without the use of NGTs, e. g. greater resistance to environmental influences, including resistance to bacterial infections, viruses or fungi, such as downy mildew, ‘Jordan virus’ or late blight. There are in addition a number of approaches which do not use NGTs to increase yields and improve climate-relevant properties, such as drought tolerance. The spectrum of plant species ranges from important arable crops, such as maize, rice, wheat and rapeseed, to various vegetables and fruit. These examples show that many of the advantages claimed for NGTs can be achieved using conventional methods.

In addition, some of these traits are located on so-called ‘quantitative trait loci’ (QTLs), i.e. several different units of genetic information within a specific chromosome segment, which are important for the expression of certain traits, such as yield or stress resistance. The exact genetic basis of these traits is often not precisely defined at the DNA level, and can be significantly influenced by the genetic background of the respective variety. Conventional breeding requires extensive genetic diversity – which is already present in the available varieties and can be increased by random mutagenesis if necessary. In contrast, NGTs can only be used to produce new traits if the precise information relevant to the DNA regions are known in advance. In many cases, it is therefore much easier to use conventional breeding methods to achieve complex traits based on QTLs.

Conventional breeding methods (including random mutagenesis) can be used to produce many of the traits which have a positive impact on sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation. There is continuous further development of these methods yielding a whole range of interesting approaches with promising results (e.g. SMART breeding or marker-assisted selection (MAS), speed breeding or population breeding). In addition, by now it is common knowledge that future challenges such as climate change can best be met by increasing biodiversity in the fields. If, in the future, research and politics prioritise NGTs above conventional breeding, as currently proposed by the EU Commission to achieve European “Green Deal” goals and implement the “Farm-to-Fork” policy, this could slow down or even prevent urgently needed solutions that actually generate real benefits.

Under these circumstances – especially when it comes to the question of sustainability – traditional breeding methods should be given priority where there is any uncertainty, as plants (and animals) derived from conventional breeding are usually less hazardous with fewer risks than those obtained from NGTs. Alternative approaches in classical breeding should, therefore, always be considered and prioritised in the technology assessment of NGT plants. It is also important to ensure that conventionally-bred plants are not patented in order to keep access to biodiversity open for small and medium-sized breeders.

Further information:
TA report
Patent report No Patents on Seeds (2021)
FAO report on sustainable agriculture

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