Focus on NBTs, these new GMOs that worry environmental defenders

At INRAE ​​Clermont-Ferrand, Pierre Barret is conducting research on NBTs, these new controversial genetic manipulation techniques. (GUILLAUME GAVEN / RADIO FRANCE)

Should we be afraid of NBTs? These new techniques of plant breeding (New Breeding Technologies in English), which are sometimes presented as new GMOs, are the result of new biotechnologies. Several associations for the defense of the environment, such as the Confédération paysanne, Greenpeace and Les Amis de la Terre, filed a petition on Wednesday June 30 in Matignon, which has collected more than 120,000 signatures.

To understand what NBTs are, head to a research laboratory at INRAE, the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, in Clermont-Ferrand, where researchers have been working for a long time on the wheat genome.

The experiments are carried out there in a greenhouse, in a closed environment. There is no question of driving them in the open field. NBTs are currently considered as GMOs (only one species, GMO maize, has been authorized for cultivation in Europe, none in France since 2008), even if there is a difference in size. “In old GMOs, we added a DNA fragment which mostly came from another species”, explains Pierre Barret, who supervises research on wheat. “We were doing something that couldn’t be done naturally, by crossing over. And this foreign DNA which is a very small portion of the genome was causing a problem in crossing that species barrier.”

For NBTs, we will create a mutation from a mutation that already exists naturally.

Pierre Barret, researcher at INRAE ​​Clermont-Ferrand

to franceinfo “

The difference with GMOs is that for NBTs, “we will take wheat resistant to a disease, identify a mutation responsible for this resistance. And we will copy this mutation, for example if you change a letter in a book, in another wheat which is sensitive to the disease. It will therefore acquire this resistance without any disturbance. “

With NBTs, we do not implant a corn gene on an ear of wheat. We remain on genes of the same species. This genetic manipulation, called “molecular scissors”, is quite recent. It won the Nobel Prize in chemistry to a French researcher, Emmanuelle Charpentier, in 2020.

The goal of this genetic manipulation is to adapt plants to climate change. “You will have a discomfort which will be very efficient for resistance to the cold, which we will recover from wild wheat”, continues Pierre Barret. “We are going to copy this form that the gene has in European wheat, which is very interesting for it from an agricultural point of view. And so we are going to transfer the character or part of the character of cold tolerance.” And then, also transfer a quality “which interests us a lot, disease tolerance, with the ultimate objective of limiting as much as possible or eliminating phytosanitary treatments. ” Therefore remove insecticides, pesticides, fungicides …

The NBTs represent a great scientific advance, but the Confédération paysanne, in particular, fears a standardization of agriculture. “We farmers have to adapt our crops to climate change. There are not 50 solutions”, analysis Guy Kastler, seed specialist within the union. “The first is to have plants adapted to each growing condition, to each terroir.”

How do you want plants selected in a laboratory […] are adapted to my terroir?

Guy Kastler, member of the Confédération paysanne

to franceinfo

“Plants selected in a laboratory, multiplied in Chile or Romania”, can not be “adapted to my terroir, which is near the Mediterranean. It is not possible! The only solution is to use fertilizers and pesticides, that is to say to homogenize the terroirs. We, we do the opposite “, the farmer continues.

This discourse is obviously undermined by seed manufacturers, who say they have no choice but to release new varieties. “Today the lifespan of a variety in farmers’ fields is around five years”, justifies the president of the French Seed Union, Claude Tabel.

The parasites adapt to the varieties put on the market. We must perpetually come out with new modes of defense.

Claude Tabel, representative of the seed companies

to franceinfo

“Look what just happened to us with the pandemic”, compares Claude Tabel. “You can see that variants arrive as soon as we put in place strategies and vaccines. For plants, it’s the same thing. In the field of living organisms, mutations cause the parasites to adapt. , we must be able to offer farmers plants that have adapted. If tomorrow you no longer have any research, you will no longer have this adaptability. “

Research synonymous with profits, since these genetic manipulations are all patented. The turnover of French seed companies thus exceeds three billion euros. This is “a sector of excellence”, according to the Minister of Agriculture, Julien Denormandie. France is the leading producer of seeds in Europe, and the world’s leading exporter. This is in particular why Paris is campaigning with Europe, so that these NBTs are no longer considered as GMOs. The debate has reopened since spring 2021.

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