A look at the implications of new GMO laws

George Lucas looks at how new legislation might lead to increased cultivation of GMO in Europe but a reduction in R&D.

In the US, staple crops like sugar beet, canola (rapeseed), corn, and soybean are almost entirely GMO. However, European regulation and attitudes have meant that almost no GMO crops are grown here. Spain represents the biggest grower but its produce represents less than 1% of global GMO production. Many EU countries such as Germany and France are particularly hostile to GMOs and have banned their cultivation entirely.

Despite this, Europe imports over 35 million tonnes of GM soyabean each year for animal feed, as well as many other crops. And it’s fair to say that attitudes may be changing. Last year, the UK parliament passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act and the EU Commission and Parliament are at an advanced stage on similar laws. These laws cut the red tape around plants produced using “New Genomic Techniques” (NGTs),.

Under this new regime, NGT plants are subject to the same level of regulatory scrutiny as plants obtained through conventional breeding and would not be required to undergo the extensive safety testing required for GMOs.

However, the EU Parliament does not want to simply update the regulatory framework as has been done in the UK; they also want to exclude NGT plants from being patented.

The current law

Under the current law, plants produced by conventional breeding cannot be patented in Europe. The EU Parliament has explained that the reason they want to exclude NGT plants from patentability is because they are concerned about giving more power to multinational seed companies over farmers. They also consider that PVRs provide adequate exemptions for breeders but that patent law does not.

The patent sector has been quite critical of this move since it argues that the language of the laws as proposed is vague and too broad. Further criticism has arisen in that these amendments will affect non-EU countries that are part of the European patent system. since the EPC explicitly refers to the EU Biotech Directive (which would be amended under these proposed changes) and this includes some non-EU countries including the UK and Norway.

While it seems likely that these proposed changes would lead to increased cultivation and consumption of GMO plants in Europe, it may nonetheless dissuade further R&D in this space in Europe, particularly from smaller companies.

Such companies rely on patents to protect their investment into R&D as well as to attract funding. Larger companies already have an advantage in having greater resources to help navigate the complex regulatory environment surrounding GMOs.

Given the EU parliament’s aim is to avoid giving more power to multinational seed companies, they will need to carefully consider the impact of these new proposed laws before bringing them into force.

George Lucas ,Associate at EIP

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