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New genomic techniques: A panacea for reducing pesticide use?

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New genomic techniques are unavoidable and could considerably reduce the use of pesticides without affecting food production, some European agricultural players have argued, though NGOs and environmental groups have been sceptical.

Read the original article in French here.

New genomic techniques (NGTs) – also known as new plant breeding techniques – could act as a solution by creating new varieties for which even the European Commission now wants to reduce the red tape – notably by allowing some of them to escape the EU’s tight rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO).

In its legislative initiative presented in July, the EU executive proposed “innovative tools that help increase the sustainability and resilience of our food system”.

All eyes are currently set on pest and disease resistance both in the EU and worldwide as “the use of pesticides is under pressure”, Garlich von Essen, Secretary General of European seed industry association Euroseeds said at the start of the Euractiv-organised debate on Wednesday (25 October).

Pest- and disease-resistant varieties, in particular, would make it possible to reduce the amount of pesticides used. As governments and civil society are pushing for a reduction in pesticide use, many agricultural players are promoting NGTs as a greener solution.

Progress elsewhere

While NGT products have yet to be commercialised in Europe, some are already available elsewhere.

For example, Californian researchers have developed a rice resistant to blast disease, eliminating the need for fungicides and reducing nitrogen fertiliser use.

In Europe, researchers are hard at work while awaiting regulatory approval. Some 90 applications have already been filed for NGT crops.

In the French West Indies, alongside Ecuador, Guatemala and Costa Rica, growers eagerly await approval to market gene-edited Cavendish bananas, a variety which accounts for 50% of world banana consumption. The gene-edited variety would be resistant to black cercosporiosis, a leaf disease which is threatening the bananas with extinction.

In some African countries, “the farmers are really suffering, spraying 10-20 times in a season. They don’t have the protective gear, and then the residue that ends up in the final produce,” Dr Sheila Ochugboju, Director of Alliance for Science, an NGO that fights for food security worldwide and a promoter of NGTs, has said.

“These NGTs give us hope for the future because […] because technology can be quickly taught to our scientists, and those scientists can apply them to the actual problems in those countries specifically,” she added, pointing to countries in the Global South “that really are not food secure like Kenya”.

Opposite effects for NGOs and green activists

However, environmental NGOs, green activists, and lawmakers are less convinced that NGTs are the ultimate cure-all for reducing pesticide use.

According to them, producing varieties resistant to diseases and pests, and even more so to climatic conditions, is still a difficult task despite decades of research on GMOs.

“Instead, GMO producers focus on modifying simple traits that help industrial agribusiness, often also producers of new herbicide and insecticide-tolerant crops,” the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) states in a press release.

Those who oppose NGTs believe that their use encourages pesticide use instead.

This is because, in their view, a variety that can tolerate more herbicides will encourage farmers to be less vigilant about the amounts they spray. A 1996 American study showed that introducing GMOs led to a more than 15% increase in pesticide use.

Another point they make is that “weeds” or insects exposed to pesticides are becoming increasingly resistant to them, leading to more intensive treatment.

What about the EU’s pesticide réduction regulation?

The issue of herbicide-resistant NGT products is the subject of ongoing debate in Brussels. While the European Commission’s initial proposal placed these varieties in the second category – like GMOs – they do not appear in the final document.

Therefore, opponents to the use of NGTs fear that the rules will not cover them and could slow down the EU’s planned phase-out of pesticides.

“How can we stop farmers from using pesticides?” asked MEP Irène Tolleret (Renew) during a debate on the text in the European Parliament.

However, according to some EU lawmakers, such as Renew MEP Pascal Canfin and EU Commissioners, the text on NGTs can only work in conjunction with the text on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUR) Regulation, which calls for a halving of pesticide use by 2030 as part of the Farm to Fork strategy.

However, according to a recent study by HFFA Research and distributed by Euroseeds, the introduction of NGTs could offset the average 20% loss in agricultural production caused by this strategy.

Progress in NGT technology over the next 10 years has “the potential to counteract approximately 55 per cent of the apparent sectoral income and GDP shrinkages in2030 that must be attributed to production and supply impacts of the strategies until then,” the study reads.

For Thor Gunnar Kofoed, chairman of the Seeds Working Group at European farmers’ organisation Copa-Cogeca, pesticide resistance makes the move to NGTs inevitable.

“These pesticides we are using today will maybe no longer be used in about 10 years. So we need some other tools instead of these pesticides,” he said.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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