Crops are currently seen as either conventionally bred, or genetically modified and therefore requiring significant controls. The resulting harvests from such a crop are segregated accordingly. Significant discussion is ongoing as to whether the new breeding techniques , being referred to as Plant Breeding Innovations (PBIs) should be considered conventional breeding, or genetic modification. PBIs have been under discussion for many years, and a resolution is still not imminent. However a step towards clarity is to be expected in 2018 with the resolution of a particular court case.
In 2016 France brought a case to the European Court of Justice seeking clarity on whether a herbicide-resistant oilseed rape variety bred through mutagenesis (a PBI) should go through the GM approvals process. The result is expected in the first half of 2018 and is expected to have a significant impact on how mutagenesis is viewed, and perhaps even the other PBIs being looked at. Until the court case is completed no official position is expected from the European Commission, and when the Commission has formed an opinion Member States will be able to form policies.
The implications of such technology are wide ranging, and could lead to new varieties with enhanced characteristics becoming available much faster than is currently the case. Increased yields, pest and disease resistance and improved tolerance to a changing climate are just some of the potential benefits to farmers, and enhanced nutritional content and flavour are just some that would be available to consumers. Opposition to the use of technology has been a major disincentive to investing in and therefore ultimately providing some of these benefits, which have long been promised through genetic modification. If the ECJ were to view mutagenesis as a conventional technique, the potential for the development of new improved commercial varieties would be significant.
The implications do not just affect the EU, but are truly global. Grain trade is international and depends on the easy movement and blending of varieties. Segregation of conventional and GM crops already takes up resources, so the grain trade emphatically does not want a third segregation for crops from PBIs that do not fit either conventional or genetically modified criteria. Furthermore, other countries are also working on their regulatory frameworks, and a truly problematic situation for export would be if some countries view a variety as GM whilst another views it as conventional.