Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Special Topics Important Publications Important Links Events News
Fbae Header Home






New techniques in plant biotechnology

Biotechnology offers great opportunities for plant breeding. New techniques for rapidly selecting or inducing the desired characteristics are being developed.  The Dutch plant breeding sector remains aloof from genetic modification in plants. The aversion of the consumer, complicated legislation and the high costs of introducing GM crops and their products do not make genetic modification an attractive alternative to conventional breeding methods. Nonetheless, with the advance of technology, the distinction between genetic modification and other plant biotechnological techniques gradually blurs. In addition, such technological developments also outgrow the GMO legislation. At times it is not clear whether the products of some techniques are subject to the prevailing GMO legislation.

Consequently, an impasse has arisen between the Dutch government and breeding companies as the developer of new techniques in plant biotechnology.  Companies are only prepared to further develop some innovations when it is clear whether they are subject to the GMO legislation or not. Being bound by EU legislation, the government says it can only make this judgement when an actual application is submitted. Thus a situation is created in which both parties are waiting for each other.

This advisory report, which to some degree has a informative character, discusses six new techniques: breeding agroinoculation, grafting on genetically modified rootstock, gene silencing by DNA methylation, the use of oligonucleotides, and specific mutagenesis with homologous recombination.  These techniques were chosen as they are either in the early stages of commercial application or give insight into the problem at stake. For some of the discussed techniques, the important questions are whether they can be considered genetic modification and whether their products must be characterised as GMOs. In this respect, a progressive scale can be distinguished.

The products of some techniques, such as the offspring in case of reverse breeding, do not contain any novel characteristics, added sequences, mutations or other changes. In epigenetic mutants, no sequence changes are made in the genome, though there are heritable effects. In products of grafting, transgenic sequences may be absent but transgenic proteins or other transgenic molecules or induced effects can be present. Other products, for instance those generated by the application of mutagentia coupled with oligonucleotides, do contain mutations in the genome but that production method is similar to that of organisms exempted from the legislation. Finally, some organisms are genetically modified but by a modification technique that dismisses many of the current technical-scientific objections.

The European legislation is based on the principle that when recombinant DNA techniques are used in the production of an organism, this organism is considered a GMO with changed genetic characteristics. Therefore this organism is subject to the GMO legislation. The underlying idea here is that the process of genetic modification is inherently unsafe and associated with risks.  However, with the advance of science and biotechnology, is has become possible to use recombinant DNA techniques or genetic modification in a production process, in such a way that the resulting plant or organism does not contain any added sequences or expresses other changes. An example of this are plants that are produced with the help of reverse breeding. Based on technical scientific grounds COGEM is of the opinion that such plants should not be seen as GMOs. If current legislation implies this is not possible, COGEM recommends that they be exempt from GMO legislation.  COGEM considers further the offspring of agroinoculated plants in principle not as GMOs. However, at this moment it cannot entirely be excluded that this offspring possesses unintended transgenic sequences after agro-inoculation.  COGEM will conduct further research into this. Expectations are that the results of this research will be made available at the start of 2007.  As yet it is too early for a judgment on epigenetic applications and possibly related environmental risks. The stability of epigenetic changes and the underlying mechanism of heredity are unclear at this moment. Applications are not immediately expected. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether epigenetic mutants fall within the legal scope of GMO legislation.  Whether non-modified upper stem grafted on GM rootstock and their products must be subject to the GMO legislation is principally a legal and political question. However, COGEM observes that it cannot be said that there are by definition no risks to people and the environment from the upper stem (products) grafted on GM rootstock and COGEM recommends a case by case approach.

COGEM considers specific mutagenesis with oligonucleotides a form of mutagenesis. It should therefore be exempt from GMO legislation and regulations.

Targeted integration of transgenes in plants via homologous recombination falls under the denominator of genetic modification. Plants that are produced with this technique must be considered as transgene. This implies, under the current legislation, that an environmental risk analysis will always have to be performed when a transgene is thus inserted.