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Seeding the future: A discussion on new genomic techniques

Seeding the future: A discussion on new genomic techniques

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Focused on the production and sale of seed for corn, sugarbeet, cereals, vegetables, oilseed rape and sunflower, KWS is one of the world’s leading plant-breeding companies. It has over 5,000 employees in more than 70 countries and net sales of around $1.94 billion in the fiscal year 2022/2023. It uses leading-edge plant breeding methods to continuously improve yield for farmers and plants’ resistance to diseases, pests and abiotic stress. To that end, the company invested more than $320 million last fiscal year in research and development. A company with a tradition of family ownership, KWS has operated independently for 165 years. Here, CEO Felix Büchting shares his insights.

Q:  What are the main elements currently moving KWS and the seed sector in Europe?

New breeding methods are an important tool for the future of sustainable agriculture, for maintaining food supply and for achieving the Farm to Fork targets of the EU Green Deal.

A: Agriculture today faces a multitude of challenges. Climate change is causing drought periods, heat stress and less-dependable growing conditions. An increased number of agricultural pests and plant diseases are threatening yields and crop nutrition. At the same time, we recognize a growing need to sustainably feed a growing world population. Meeting these challenges requires continuous improvement of seed quality. This is why we invest a substantial amount of our turnover into research and development activities each year to ensure a constant level of innovation for our crops and varieties.  

Q: New genomic techniques (NGTs) are widely discussed right now, how does this discussion connect to the challenges you just described?

A: In the outlined setting, speed is a crucial factor. Conventional plant breeding is a lengthy process that on average takes between eight and 12 years before an improved variety is available to farmers. Genome editing allows researchers and breeders to introduce desirable characteristics by making small changes in a targeted way without incorporating undesirable properties — and that speeds up the development of new plant varieties by up to 20-30 percent. Therefore, we are convinced that new breeding methods are an important tool for the future of sustainable agriculture, for maintaining food supply and for achieving the Farm to Fork targets of the EU Green Deal.

Copyright Julia Lormis | CEO Felix Büchting via KWS

Q: What is your view on the current European Commission proposal on NGTs and what are the main points of discussion?

A: KWS considers the Commission proposal an opportunity to develop an enabling framework for those products that would be categorized as conventional-like in the future, bringing us closer to reaching the Green Deal goals. We keep hearing concerns from certain parties that NGTs are just promises, but that they are missing the proof points — or real products — for the European market. Well, speaking for a large seed producer, I can claim that we need legal certainty before investing large amounts into technologies such as NGT. Particularly the future verification process is tricky, as we see a risk of instrumentalization of the procedure for political reasons. Therefore, decisions taken by member country authorities should be questioned by other member countries solely based on scientific criteria.

We need to make the wider public aware of what plant breeding is about, we need to keep explaining and keep up the dialogue with all stakeholders and decision-makers.

We at KWS believe that transparency is an important asset to our industry. For this reason, we dedicated a section of our website to the listing of our varieties, reporting their main characteristics in terms of benefits for the farmer, the environment and all breeding methods used to develop these varieties. The Product Transparency website as an openly-accessible information source is currently being updated and will soon contain all new varieties. We aim at sharing this information as part of the labelling of our seed bags in the future, allowing for easy access. As the website contains information on all breeding methods (not exclusively on NGT), we do not discriminate between products.  

Q: So we understand that transparency is of high importance to you, but how do you see the role of intellectual property (IP) in plant breeding for the future?

A: Breeders need to access genetic material from others to remain as efficient as possible in breeding future varieties. At the same time, we need to find the right balance between access to innovation and IP protection. Therefore, we strive for a fair balance between plant variety protection (an IP right customized to plant breeding) and patents. We use different tools depending on the situation and needs, always trying to ensure that research and development are not hindered. For this reason, we are founding members of the Agricultural Crop Licensing Platform (ACLP), to ensure access to novel patented traits including NGTs. We are also a member of the International Licensing Platform Vegetable (ILP) and we launched TraitWay, our very own native trait licensing website.

Ten years from now, I would like to look back and see that Europe made the right decisions, supporting breeders and farmers to address all the challenges we are facing.

Q: What would your call to the sector look like, how do we pave the way for the future?

A: I believe that a key element is spreading knowledge about plant breeding and our role in the big picture. To achieve this, we need to make the wider public aware of what plant breeding is about, we need to keep explaining and keep up the dialogue with all stakeholders and decision-makers. We need to accept opposing views and different needs and remain open to any exchange with actors in the agri-food chain and policymakers, and we should convince others to support NGTs in Europe by explaining their contribution to a sustainable agriculture. ‘Seeding the future’ is our company claim and we always seek to live up to it. As breeders, we need to keep a long-term perspective to foresee the needs of farmers and consumers years in advance. Ten years from now, I would like to look back and see that Europe made the right decisions, supporting breeders and farmers to address all the challenges we are facing. If we get this right, the seed sector will continue to play a key role in some of the most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change and feeding a growing world population sustainably.

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