Opinions
Jürg Niklaus

«Plant breeding calls for liberal rules»

Methods such as the so-called gene scissors massively improve and accelerate the traditional method of breeding. The federal government is in the process of adapting its legal regulations. These should by no means be more restrictive than those in the EU, writes Jürg Niklaus in the «Neuen Zürcher Zeitung».

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Parliament has instructed the Federal Council to submit a draft decree by mid-2024 at the latest for a risk-based authorisation regulation for plants that are bred using new breeding technologies – in particular the so-called gene scissors. No foreign genetic material may be inserted into these plants. In addition, they must offer proven added value for agriculture, the environment or consumers compared to conventional breeding methods.

There is a great deal of dynamism in the biotechnology sector around the world: new genome editing methods offer the possibility of precisely modifying the genetic material of a plant. These changes simulate processes that occur continuously in nature through spontaneous mutations. In contrast to previous genetic engineering, the key point is that no foreign genetic material or viruses are introduced into the plant cell. Carrots remain carrots, potatoes remain potatoes. With the new breeding methods, we are doing exactly what we have been doing for decades with untargeted mutagenesis in this country without much fuss – simply much more precisely.

Regulators in many countries are paving the way for the advantages of the new methods to be realised. Even the cautious EU is now moving in a progressive direction. It is doing so for good reason, as food production is under severe pressure: the population is growing. Weather turbulence is making cultivation more difficult, while at the same time pesticide consumption is expected to fall. And political crises and wars are jeopardising food supplies. New plant varieties are therefore in demand. Using conventional methods, it takes 10 to 15 years to breed a new apple variety, for example. We don't have that time. With conventional methods, plant breeding is constantly lagging behind the challenges.

That is why the EU Parliament has now decided to exempt plants that are bred using the new breeding methods and fulfil certain criteria from the current genetic engineering regulations. In doing so, it is following the lead of the scientific community, the majority of whom are convinced of the opportunities offered by the new methods. In January, no fewer than 35 Nobel Prize winners and over 1000 scientists declared themselves in favour of this.


What does this mean for Switzerland as a business location?

One thing is clear: the days of the gene technology moratorium are numbered. Now is the opportunity to take responsibility in the interests of efficient, sustainable plant production, which is the basis of all nutrition. Legislation demands a risk-based authorisation system. It has been scientifically proven that plants from new breeding methods pose no greater risk to health and the environment than those from conventional plant breeding. This finding must be incorporated into the future authorisation regulation, otherwise it will not be risk-based.

The Federal Administration is apparently working on an independent Swiss solution that is to be more restrictive than the EU proposal. For its part, the Federal Council regularly refers to the allegedly high level of scepticism among the population. However, a recent study by Angela Bearth (ETH) and two of her professional colleagues from the USA shows a different picture: almost half of those surveyed are open to the new breeding methods.

Politically, it is always convenient to label such a project «Swiss approach» or «Swiss finish». In doing so, we fail to recognise the scientific findings of the past 20 years and the resulting potential. This is a shot in the arm. Technical barriers to trade are poison for successful Swiss plant cultivation and for the entire value chain.

On the one hand, we are losing added value abroad, from research to breeding, propagation, cultivation and processing. On the other hand, we are missing out on the opportunity to breed plants independently and locally that are customised to local needs. Plant cultivation that is appropriate to the location and a successful value chain are dependent on a smooth exchange with other countries and in particular with the EU. We are therefore calling for regulation that is at least as liberal as that of the EU. It is high time.

Jürg Niklaus, 53, is President of the «Sorten für morgen» association, which campaigns at a political level for new methods of plant breeding. A doctor of law, he was a member of the Swiss Federal Competition Commission and worked as an independent lawyer in Dübendorf, specialising in commercial and agricultural law.

This guest article was first published in the «Neue Zürcher Zeitung» on 9 March 2024.

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