Exploring the boundaries of plant breeding

April 6, 2020 by Staff Reporter

Are there are limits to what plant breeding can (or should) achieve?

Or, as some proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture believe, are we limited only by our imaginations and how strict or liberal our regulations are?

These were amongst the questions we set out to explore late last year in our world café on The Boundaries of Plant Breeding.

The day-long meeting held in Brussels was co-hosted by Beyond GM and IFOAM-EU. As part of our A Bigger Conversation initiative, it brought together plant breeders working in many different ways including those using genetic engineering, organic, biodynamic and conventional methods.

During the course of the day, and in an atmosphere that was open and friendly, participants were given the opportunity to explore four main themes:

  • Concepts and boundaries How much do we understand each other when we talk about concepts like ’natural’ and ‘sustainable’ in plant breeding? Are there assumptions that would benefit from challenge and/or deeper exploration?
  • Acceptable risk Genetic engineering of food crops brings with it a level of risk. How do we decide what level of risk is acceptable?
  • Resilient plant breeding In a rapidly changing world, which is highly vulnerable to climate change, how can plant breeding, as a discipline and as a structured R&D and marketing system, build resilience? Can it, and if so, do the new genetic engineering techniques have a role?
  • Citizen engagement Citizens are the ‘end users’ of plant breeding. Some view their engagement with and understanding of the processes involved as crucial, while others argue that citizen involvement may complicate an already complex picture.

Coming together

That exchange of opinions and ideas is documented in our new report The Boundaries of Plant Breeding, which gives readers a glimpse into a different kind of discussion around plant breeding

For the last 18 months we have been convening roundtables, panel sessions and world cafés that bring together specialists from a wide range of perspectives to talk openly to one another about what they might disagree on – and crucially what they might agree on.

“We recognise that the discussion around the use of genetic engineering in plant breeding has a long and difficult history.” says Beyond GM Director Pat Thomas, who heads up the A Bigger Conversation initiative.

“Too often, when it comes to GMOs people very quickly take sides and dig their heels in. That’s understandable but what we tried to achieve with these meetings is a space where participants could loosen up a bit and engage constructively with others coming from a different point of view.”

These conversations have already produced one report on Gene-edited Animals in Agriculture, which follows our 2019 roundtable, co-hosted with Compassion in World Farming.

What we found

Although not discussed in depth, the European Court of Justice’s 2018 decision on targeted mutagenesis was an important backdrop to the to the day’s discussion.

In July 2018 the ECJ ruled that targeted mutagenesis produces genetically modified organisms which, therefore, fall under current EU regulations. Responses to the ruling varied but in an otherwise good-natured meeting, the ruling – alongside the organic sector’s stance that GMOs produced via mutagenesis, or any other type of genome editing, is not allowed in organic – provided the most consistent source of conflict during the day.

Fuelling this was a belief, passionately held by some, that the urgent need to improve sustainability and climate change resilience meant that genome editing should be considered a viable tool, even in organic.

Differing responses to this idea of “using all the tools in the tool box” were also revealing. There were varying levels of agreement that genome editing is “one tool in the toolbox”. No-one argued, however, that it was the tool.

In addition:

  • There was acceptance by participants who support genome editing of the viability and value of the organic approach to plant breeding.
  • The alternative (organic) participants, likewise, acknowledged the value of genomic tools in lab-based research and in genome mapping as a tool of selection. However, there was little or no understanding by many – possibly a majority of – participants of the rationale for organic plant breeding to avoid or prohibit some approaches (tools in the toolbox) especially targeted mutagenesis/SDN-1.
  • There was an implied sense from some participants that some genome editing tools, which are currently seen as problematic, might gain acceptance in the future after further consideration, research and/or experience of use. In this case, issues of risk, risk assessment and regulation are more important than perceived conceptual differences over methods.
  • What shape that risk assessment should take however remained unresolved. There were, however, real and significant differences between participants over process- or trait- (final product) based risk assessment.
  • There was also a degree of willingness to accept that public perceptions of genetic engineering/genome editing are not purely ‘emotional’ or ‘irrational’ but are shaped by a complex range of factors and values which are relevant to the debate.

Sustainability means what?

Several other important philosophical and practical takeaways emerged from the day.

For example, amongst our world café participants it was clear that there was a willingness to work together but not much of a plan for how those with sometimes deeply conflicting vales and approaches to plant breeding could do that.

Different people had different approaches to and definitions for ‘sustainability’. There was no consensus as to whether sustainability criteria should, for example, include limitations on technology and economic growth, or whether/where societal values such as accountability, fairness, quality of life, individual choice and the right to health and welfare should also be included.

In the UK, the EU and elsewhere new ‘green deals’ which ostensibly put ‘sustainability’ at their heart, are largely predicated on the more widespread use of new biotechnologies which, promise to improve yields, welfare, biodiversity, sustainability and profits in the farming and technology sectors.

In addition, while the biotechnology industry – at least on the face of things – acknowledges no limits to the development and application of its products, limits and boundaries are nevertheless core concepts of sustainability.

Given the need for a sustainable and resilient agricultural sector this confusion is worrying.

Keeping the conversation going

“There is an urgent need,” says Thomas “to get to grips with the conflicts inherent in approaching sustainability with a largely industrial model of food production that recognises no limits or boundaries.”

“We also need to recognise that while genome editing has been proposed as a kind of one size fits all solution to future agricultural challenges, the challenges faced by farmers following the industrial model are very different from those taking a more systems oriented approach. For the latter group genome editing offers few advantages.”

An important takeaway from the day was that plant breeding isn’t a monolith. There is room for debate and the focus of the debate can shift over time.

In addition, it seemed clear that amongst the plant breeding fraternity the discussion is far more fluid and open than at the policy or activist level and perhaps it is here where some kind of consensus on moving forward can be found.

This, of course, requires the full spectrum of views from all plant breeding approaches being brought into the forum. Beyond GM was founded on the principle of bringing everyone into the conversation and we will continue to provide the space for this to happen.


  • The comprehensive report from the day, The Boundaries of Plant Breeding, which follows the day long discussion across several key areas is now available to download.
  • A shorter ‘executive summary’ which gives a snapshot of emerging themes and conclusions from the day is also available to download.