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Lab equipment. © INRA, William Beaucardet

Green biotechnologies: paving new paths for agriculture

The impact of GMPs (genetically modified plants)

GMPs are at the heart of a heated public debate on biotechnologies, at least in Europe. The political and social context of this debate has led to a halt in the development of new genetic engineering in Europe. That is why public research programmes, especially those at INRA, focus on the impact of genetically modified food crops, and much less so on agricultural and industrial innovation.

The impact of GMPs on the environment

When it comes to GMPs, INRA plays a key role on the international stage.

Many studies focus on the risk of contamination of wild flora and non-modified crops. Such risks can only be examined on a case-by-case basis.

INRA has developed models to predict the risk of gene flow via seeds and pollen between neighbouring fields and successive harvests, depending on rotation of crops and growing techniques. Models have been created for several species including rapeseed, maize and sugar beets.

Coexistence between GMP and non-GMP sectors

Two European programmes piloted by INRA focused on the coexistence of GMP and non-GMP sectors, in response to European regulations regarding the separation of sectors and the traceability of products in order to ensure accurate labelling and ultimately offer the freedom of choice to all players.

SIGMEA (2004-2007) proposed a model decision-making tool to minimise the risk of gene flow. Simulations took into account the specific characteristics of a species and growing conditions. In some cases (eg maize), separate harvests are enough to ensure that the transgene does not get passed onto non-GMP crops beyond the 0.9% prescribed limit. In other cases, crops must be staggered or plants spaced at greater distances. For rapeseed or zones with a high concentration of maize, GM crops and conventional crops must be separated geographically. This tool offers the means to analyse every possible scenario objectively, regardless of policies and established thresholds. Data on gene flow from the results of experiments were collected from 12 European countries.

Since 2004, European regulations require labels that are appropriately marked for foods that contain more than 0.9% of a GMP product.. © inra, Gérard Paillard
Since 2004, European regulations require labels that are appropriately marked for foods that contain more than 0.9% of a GMP product. © inra, Gérard Paillard
Co-Extra (2005-2009) furnished methods for managing the coexistence of GMP and non-GMP sectors affordably, thanks to good harvesting and processing practices. The programme also developed ways to control and trace gene flow to ensure accurate labelling. Some 200 scientists from 18 European countries participated in the programme.

 Field trials

To assess the agronomic potential of a transgene, it must be tested in the field. Indeed, an isolated plant behaves very differently from a crop of plants, and environment has a strong impact on its carbon and nitrogen metabolism. The qualities of a plant, for example its sugar, starch and protein content, as well as quantity (yield), can only be assessed in real growing conditions (environment, soil/climate, crop density, growing techniques). Field trials are also essential in assessing the risk of transgenetic varieties.

INRA pays particularly close attention to making sure the required precautions are taken when conducting field trials. All stakeholders are consulted and trials are monitored by a committee:

-          A unique joint study was carried out in field trials with transgenetic vine rootstock.

-          Since 1999, INRA Orleans has been carrying out studies on poplars whose lignin content has been genetically modified. The poplars are used in the production of paper pulp, and more recently in bioenergy production.

Excerpt of the institutional position of INRA (Board of Directors of 27 June 2007)

“Transgenesis will be considered on the basis of a comparative study with other possible methods, when those alternative methods are deemed unsatisfactory. The process will be open to monitoring by all stakeholders.

[The Institute is committed to] guaranteeing that work methods go above and beyond compliance with regulations, intellectual property agreements and safety rules in experiments by progressive scales. The Institute commits to publishing in an explicit and clear manner the choice of themes and methodologies as well as the results recorded.”