Agriculture. Five questions about “NBT”, these GMO superfoods that are debating

“New” techniques for genetic modification of certain crops (“new breeding techniques”, or NBT) raise questions. The European Commission has just launched a major consultation until July, in order to know what to do with them: should they be stored “separate”, identifying them as genetically modified organisms? Or supervise them less strictly… or not at all? Until a decision is expected in 2023, the question remains.

What is it about ?

Gathered under the name of “new techniques of genetic selection”, or “new breeding cultures”, these NBTs come very close to what nature itself does. Even what we have already practiced since the dawn of time with… the practice of grafting.

The term “NBT” appeared for the first time in 2011, in a report by the Joint Research Center of the European Union.

A technique that has been revolutionized since 2012, in particular thanks to the famous CRISPR-Cas9 “genetic scissors”, resulting from the research of the Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American Jennifer Doudna. This innovation earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

In concrete terms, NBTs make it possible to very precisely and fairly easily modify the genome of a living being, without introducing a foreign gene (transgene) into it – unlike what is done for “classic” GMOs.

Why are NBTs so appealing?

In agronomic research, it is a much simpler, faster and above all less expensive solution than producing GMOs. Something to seduce researchers… like seed companies.

By “improving” the genome of crops – but also of animals – this makes it possible to obtain species that are more productive, more resistant to parasites or weather variations – and therefore, specialists promise, possibly more ecological, since this would reduce the use to certain phytosanitary products.

Better: the NBT would also improve the taste and nutritional qualities of products, for example by giving tomatoes their flavor of yesteryear.

In short, a promise to maintain a productivist agriculture but without its harmful effects.

Why do some people fear them?

For the time being, European justice classifies NBTs as so-called “classic” GMOs. Environmental organizations point to the risk of seeing them appear on the shelves… without being able to identify them.

The question is more ethical and environmental than health, but according to them the vagueness should not settle. In 2018, the Court of Justice of the EU responded – temporarily – by ruling that it was indeed GMOs. This meant that these products had to be assessed, traced, and labeled as such.

To settle the question, the European Commission has launched a major consultation, on which all EU citizens can express themselves. Objective: a revision of the regulations, with a decision expected in 2023.

What are the issues ?

The defenders of NBT assure it: the modification of the genome is minimal. But above all, it consists of reproducing in the laboratory what nature sometimes does itself. As a result, modifications that are almost impossible to spot even by studying the genome – unlike what happens during the production of GMOs.

This is both what drives supporters of NBTs to refuse to classify them as “GMO”… and what leads opponents to demand traceability. Without it, they believe, it is impossible to know if what you are buying and, a fortiori, ingesting, has undergone genetic intervention in the laboratory.

For seed producers and other players in the agri-food industry, the question is less symbolic and no doubt much more costly: maintaining the GMO classification presupposes lengthy evaluation work intended to prove the harmlessness of the products in particular. Then as many efforts of traceability, labeling, etc.

For now, the European Parliament is divided. But some member states, including France, are supporting the agro-industry lobby and pushing for NBT foods to no longer be classified as GMOs.

Can we already consume it?

For the time being, not in France or in the European Union, where they are subject to a moratorium – pending an essential regulatory clarification.

On the other hand, a tomato supposed to be beneficial for the population suffering from hypertension has been marketed since 2021 in Japan.

In the United States, a fungus resistant to browning (during oxidation) has been available for six years, as well as a soybean to produce a nutritionally better oil.

Among the projects not yet marketed: potatoes with less acrylamide – which breaks down into a carcinogenic compound during cooking – or tastier tomatoes and cereals that are more resistant to herbicides.

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