On the occasion of the publication of a new edition of the collective work Plant Biotechnology. Experience and Future Prospects, edited by Agnès Ricroch, Surinder Chopra, Marcel Kuntz (Springer, 2021) and of the article Next biotechnological plants for addressing global challenges: the contribution of transgenesis and New Breeding Techniques (Agnès Ricroch, Jacqueline Martin-Laffon, Bleuenn Rault, Victor C. Pallares and Marcel Kuntz), Marcel Kuntz, a research director at CNRS kindly answered our questions to present these two publications which aim to report on the achievements and possibilities of plant biotechnology.
The European Scientist : Can you tell us about the edited book ‘Plant Biotechnology. Experience and Future Prospects’?
Marcel Kuntz : This book contains 19 chapters written by an international panel of scientists, most of whom conduct basic research in fields as diverse as molecular biology or plant breeding, or the impact of regulations or intellectual property. The book gives prominence to “New Breeding Technologies”, that is to say crop improvement using “genome editing”, which of course includes the CRISPR-Cas system to which a Nobel Prize was awarded in 2020 to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.
Chapters more specialized in particular applications include reductions in the use of pesticides and carbon emissions allowed by GMOs, resistance to pests such as insects or to diseases such as viral diseases, as well as the sustainable management of these varieties of plants. In connection with soils, one chapter deals with genetic traits linked to roots in order to improve nitrogen uptake (and therefore reduce the need for nitrate fertilization), another with soil health and another with phytoremediation (depollution, in this case of heavy metals). Three chapters deal with health-related aspects: the production of biopharmaceuticals by plants, the possibility of creating wheats with a low gluten content, as well as the evaluation of the effects of phytochemicals on health and chronic diseases.
TES : are we finally going to overcome the GMO dispute?
M.K. : As Claude Debru points out in his preface, the question of risk assessment is often associated with the aphorism “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of the absence”, which this philosopher judges to be “a quite ambiguous story with dubious logical foundations”. In addition, should the spirit of the precautionary principle not favor research rather than hamper it? This is not what happened, especially in Europe.
In one chapter, I present the different worldviews that expressed themselves on GMOs and ask why the accumulation of sound scientific data on GMOs has not made it possible to overcome the dispute. In fact, scientists, scientific risk assessment and even science more generally have been drawn into a political battle. The postmodern view, now widely dominant in the Western world, contributes to the idea that science is one opinion among many, which must be debated by “stakeholders” with divergent agendas. Thus, it has proven difficult for most people to distinguish real scientific controversies from political disputes.
TES : what was the goal of your publication in the scientific journal New Biotechnology
M.K. : We wanted to identify innovations in plant biotechnology in the recent period (since 2015): both those that have reached the commercialization stage, or at least an authorization in at least one country (thus potentially opening the way to marketing), and also those, further upstream, which have been patented. The documents describing patents are indeed a valuable source of information. We have distinguished, in both cases, innovations using transgenesis, which is now a “classic” technology (it was invented in 1983!), from those which rely on “gene editing”. We have also identified the actors, public or private, and their geographic location. We have also classified these innovations into application categories: agronomic (including resistance to pests and diseases, or to stresses caused by the environment, such as drought), nutritional, industrial (industrial oils, for example) or pharmaceuticals.
TES : What are your main conclusions?
M.K. : Genome editing is often presented as a replacement for classical transgenesis. Companies affected by the closure of the European market to “GMOs”, even hoped to make the dispute over GMOs obsolete. Evidence shows that although there is an increase in the use of genome editing, the use of transgenesis is not diminishing: it accounts for 70% of the genetic traits that have obtained authorization or have been marketed since 2015. We could have expected that genome editing would take a dominant part in the patents, that is to say the innovations most upstream in our compilation, but it is not: the share of “gene editing” is only 14%. It seems in fact that the two technologies complement each other: “editing” a gene is suitable for occasional modifications in one or more genes existing in a species, but when there is a need to add a gene, then transgenesis has well-established protocols.
In addition, the proportions of the species involved and the various application categories are not exactly the same between transgenesis and genome editing, which seems to also point in the direction of complementarity. Therefore, both technologies contribute to increasing the range of possibilities. But the possibilities are not the same depending on the country…
TES : and the winners are?
M.K. : In the intellectual property landscape, China with 91% of the patents we have identified. On the other hand, this Chinese hegemony has not (yet?) translated into products brought onto the market, or at least into authorized products. In the latter cases, the dominance of the USA remain with 76% of these products.
Unsurprisingly, the all-category loser is Europe. Our analysis supports the previous observations of economists on the positive or negative influence regulation has on innovation, and in particular the imposed cost of risk assessment. The question that remains is: why did Europe load the regulatory boat until it sank, when the benefits of plant biotechnology are obvious (see the experience acquired over 25 years in user countries using these technologies) and the risks minimal or even non-existent (see also in the latter countries). My explanation, already formulated, is that the European project has been to renounce, collectively and individually, to political power as an empire in confrontation with other empires, including USA and China. The European utopia is that of a world without tragedy, reachable by displaying its virtue in all areas, including hyper-precaution on technological matters. This goes as far as agreeing to quit history, in this case of biotechnology, but also in other areas. When “virtue signaling” reaches such levels of what must be called nihilism, changing direction would require an awareness that is not yet visible … May our publications contribute to it…
Editors: Agnès Ricroch, Surinder Chopra, Marcel Kuntz
Next biotechnological plants for addressing global challenges: the contribution of transgenesis and New Breeding Techniques. Par Agnès Ricroch, Jacqueline Martin-Laffon, Bleuenn Rault, Victor C. Pallares and Marcel Kuntz. New Biotechnology, sous presse
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