Agriculture. Five questions about ‘NBT’, those GMO superfoods being discussed

“New” methods of genetic modification of some crops (“new breeding methods” or NST) raise questions. The European Commission has just started a major consultation until July to see what to do with them: should they be kept “separate”, identifying them as genetically modified organisms? Or control them less strictly … or not control at all? Until a decision is expected in 2023, the question remains.

What is it about ?

Collected under the name “new genetic breeding methods” or “new breeding crops”, these NBTs are very close to what nature itself does. Even what we have been practicing since time immemorial… the practice of inoculation.

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

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

Specifically, NSTs make it possible to very accurately and quite easily modify the genome of a living being without introducing a foreign gene (transgene) into it – in contrast to what is done for “classical” GMOs.

Why are NBT so attractive?

In agronomic research, this is a much simpler, faster and, most importantly, less expensive solution than the production of GMOs. Something that will entice researchers… like seed companies.

By “improving” the genome of crops – but also of animals – it allows for species that are more productive, more resistant to pests or weather changes – and therefore, the promise is perhaps more environmentally friendly, as it will reduce the use of some phytosanitary products.

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

Thus, a promise to maintain productive agriculture, but without its harmful effects.

Why are some people afraid of them?

So far, European justice refers NBT to the so-called “classic” GMOs. Environmental organizations point out the risk of seeing them on the shelves… without being able to identify them.

The issue is more ethical and environmental than health, but, in their opinion, uncertainty should not be settled. In 2018, the EU Court of Justice reacted – provisionally – by ruling that they were indeed GMOs. This meant that these products had to be priced, tracked and labeled accordingly.

To resolve this issue, the European Commission has launched major consultations in which all EU citizens can speak. Goal: revision of the rules, decision expected in 2023.

What problems?

Defenders of the NBT assure: modification of the genome is minimal. But above all, it consists in reproducing in the laboratory what nature sometimes does on its own. As a result, modifications occur that are almost impossible to detect even with the study of the genome – in contrast to what happens in the production of GMOs.

This is what motivates NBT supporters to refuse to classify them as “GMOs”… and motivates opponents to demand traceability. Without this, they believe, it is impossible to know whether what you buy and, even more so, swallow, has been subjected to genetic interference in the laboratory.

For seed producers and other players in the agro-food industry, the issue is less symbolic and, undoubtedly, much more costly: maintaining the classification of GMOs involves lengthy evaluation work, designed to prove the harmlessness of products. Then the same amount of effort for tracking, labeling, etc.

At the moment, the European Parliament is divided. But some member states, including France, are backing the agro-industry lobby and pushing for NBT products to no longer be classified as GMOs.

Can we already consume it?

Not currently in France or the European Union, where they are subject to a moratorium, pending regulatory clarification.

On the other hand, the tomato, which is supposed to be good for people suffering from hypertension, has been on sale since 2021 in Japan.

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

Projects not yet on the market include potatoes with less acrylamide, which break down into carcinogenic compounds when cooked, or tastier tomatoes and cereals that are more resistant to herbicides.