On October 6th at the Municipal Cultural Centre Panos Solomonides Limassol, Cyprus, the Science-Policy Symposium was held. Titled “What do NGTs mean for agriculture, aquaculture, food security and the bioeconomy“, the event discussed New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) in plants and microalgae. The Symposium was organised by GeneBEcon and the Cyprus University of Technology under the auspices of the Cyprus’ Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment. Distinguished attendees of the Symposium include Petros Xenofontos, Minister of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment of Cyprus; Jessica Polfjärd, Member of the European Parliament, Sweden, Member of the Committee for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, rapporteur for New Genomic Techniques for the European Parliament; Alexandre Huchelmann, Policy Officer, Unit E3 Biotechnology, European Commission, DG Health, and Food Safety; Dennis Eriksson, Assoc. Prof. at the Department of Plant Breeding, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Coordinator of the GeneBEcon EU project, Sweden; Xenia Theodotou Schneider, Owner and principal consultant of XPRO Consulting Limited, Cyprus; Project Manager of the GeneBEcon EU project; Andreas Katsiotis, Prof. Dean of Faculty of Geotechnical Sciences and Environmental Management, Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus; Evelyne Delezie; Research Group Leader of small livestock husbandry, Animal Sciences Unit, Flanders Research Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries and Food, Belgium; Petra Jorasch, Manager Plant Breeding and Innovation Advocacy, Euroseeds, Belgium; Andreas Pallides, Agricultural Research Officer A’, Genetics, Breeding and Biotechnology Plant improvement Section, Agricultural Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment, Cyprus; Johan Robbens, Leader Unit Blue Biotech and Food Integrity, Flanders Research Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries and Food, Belgium; Justus Wesseler, Prof. and Chair Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy Group, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; Mariette Andersson, CEO of SolEdits and Assoc. Prof. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Sweden; Michalis Koutinas, Assoc. Prof. and Department Chair, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus; Kai Purnhagen, Prof. Faculty of Life Sciences and the Law Faculty and Director of the Institute for German and European Food Law, University of Bayreuth, Germany.
At the beginning of the symposium, the Minister, Petros Xenofontos, gave a keynote speech stating that agricultural production is under threat due to climate change. Ministry currently revises strategy to respond to challenges – research and innovation should be the core of these efforts. The minister acknowledged that the use of NGTs can be beneficial to the EU if used correctly and given that they are safe. It can lead to the development of crops which can better perform under future climate scenarios. Ethical, regulatory and socioeconomic aspects need to be considered and addressed. Followed by Jessica Polfjärd, a member of the European Parliament, Sweden, rapporteur for New Genomic Techniques for the European Parliament, stated that NGT is an important tool and can lead to a win-win solution, with the potential to make European agriculture more competitive, green and maybe even more healthy. She added that political decisions should be based on the most profound science-backed information and expertise. However, distrust in science, especially in agriculture, is one of the greatest threats we are facing today. On this occasion, a Policy Officer, Unit E3 Biotechnology, European Commission, Alexandre Huchelmann, explained that NGTs are currently regulated under the GMO legislation. Still, it is not fit for purpose for this kind of technique. The proposal of the European Commission on the regulation of new genomic techniques distinguishes the NGT products into two categories dependent on genetic modification: Category 1 – NGT plants equivalent to conventional and Category 2 – NGT plants not equivalent to conventional.
After insightful interventions on the NGTs and their potential impact on both EU and Cypriot agriculture, a panel discussion was held, moderated by Petra Jorasch with 3 panel speakers, Jessica Polfjärd, Andreas Pallides, and Marios Adamides on behalf of the Cyprus Government, delving deeper into:
- how can NGTs meet the agricultural challenges in Cyprus, what potential do they have in improving the Cypriot breeding program, and what are the local limitations to making use of NGTs;
- What role can NGTs play in meeting sustainability goals set by EU Farm to Fork strategy:
- What are the next steps to proceed with the NGT proposal at the political level, and how can projects like GeneBEcon help facilitate the dialogue?
After the break, the symposium continued with showcasing GeneBEcon and CUT activities, NGTs regulatory, and Socio-Economic significance. Some of the take-home notes were:
- How sustainability in food processing can be increased by using NGTs in potato breeding. Potato is 3rd most important staple crop grown in the world. In northern Europe, it’s grown for consumption and its starch content. With NGTs, the storage ability of the starch in potatoes can be changed so that there is a reduction in the use of chemicals for its extraction.
- The benefits of NGTs in microalgae, e.g. nutritional value (amount and quality of protein), improvement of taste. There are around 200000-800000 different algae species. Unfortunately, only a few are available for the market, as requirements for approval for such feed and food products are very high, which is a bottleneck. The NGTs can help to increase the taste and improve the nutritional profile. In GeneBEcon, NGT microalgae residual biomass will be tested for animal feed to contribute to a circular bioeconomy. In addition, we are using microalgae by exploring bio (chemical) processes to speed up the process to remove bioplastics quickly and efficiently.
- Mainly, small-scale farmers could profit economically from NGT crops, reflecting on the past assessments and studies conducted on GMO crops. Moreover, an increase in independence is expected in weed management and a wider range of crop variety. However, there might be some possible issues, such as technology access.
- New genomic techniques have much to contribute to the goals of the EU Green Deal, EU Farm to Fork strategy and circular economy action plan. Many aspects of sustainability take centre stage in law discussions, e.g., what kind of sustainability and which legislative approach to apply.