Distinguishing between different types of genetic modification and making it easier for plants that have undergone modifications deemed minor to be authorized: this is the aim of the regulatory proposal on NGTs put forward by the European Commission on July 5, 2023.
In Europe, to benefit from progress offered by genome-editing techniques, known as NGTs (new genomic techniques) or NBTs (new breeding techniques), one has to be patient... But a decisive step was taken on July 5, 2023, with the announcement by the European Commission of a regulatory proposal on plants modified by NGTs, which would make it possible to lighten, subject to conditions, the procedures for their authorization by distinguishing them from GMOs.
According to the CFIV (Collective in Favor of Varietal Innovation), which brings together the main stakeholders in this field in France1, this is “a first step towards modernized European regulations that are adapted to the use of promising techniques. It also opens up a debate on how these techniques can be accessed, focusing on three key issues: the evaluation of the varieties derived from them, their contribution to sustainability and their role as a driving force for food sovereignty”.
The road to these draft regulations has been a long one. It all started with a ruling by the European Court of Justice in July 2018 stating that all products derived from new techniques of genomic modification by genetic engineering must be considered, in principle, as GMOs.
This “principled” decision prompted the European Council to act, calling on the European Commission to submit proposals for changes to the legislation. The Commission then commissioned a series of studies, concluding in April 2021 that GMO regulations were not appropriate for some plants derived from NGTs.
Changes to these regulations will then go through the “legislative initiative” process, during which opinions of European citizens and stakeholders will be sought. Carried out between April and July 2022, this consultation gathered 2,300 opinions, the majority of which (79%) were in favor of changing the regulations applied to these NGTs.
A proposal for two classes of plants
The draft regulations published by the European Commission foreshadow what could be the authorization and risk assessment procedures, as well as the traceability and labelling requirements applied to these NGTs. It establishes two classes: NGT-1 and NGT-2.
NGT-1 are plants that have undergone minor genetic modifications, produced in the laboratory, but which could have occurred spontaneously in nature or as a result of a conventional selection process. They are exempt from GMO regulations and can be considered as “classic” new varieties. However, they must have been assigned to this category after receiving the opinion of the European Food Safety Agency, based on a dossier describing the genetic rearrangements, which must be minor (a list of authorized rearrangements will be published).
NGT-2 plants are plants whose modifications do not meet the criteria for the NGT-1 category. These plants will be subject to GMO-type regulations, but these will be proportionate to the modified character and will include a health and environmental safety risk assessment.
The long road to opening up Europe to plants derived from NGTs is not over yet, as this draft law is due to be submitted to the European Parliament and Council at the end of the year. Debates on this sensitive subject could be very lively in a Europe that is singularly at odds with other major agricultural powers.
(1) SET UP IN 2019, THIS GROUP BRINGS TOGETHER 28 FRENCH AGRICULTURAL AND AGRI-FOOD ORGANIZATIONS, INCLUDING PLANT PRODUCTION AND SEEDS INTERPROFESSIONS, FNAMS, UFS, COOPERATION AGRICOLE, TECHNICAL INSTITUTES...