By producing scientific knowledge and using its expertise and know-how to develop innovations for the plant agrifood sector, INRA contributes to addressing the challenges of the agroecological transition and of the development of sustainable food systems in the context of climate change. This requires systems approaches to which scientists specialised in the fields of agronomy, genetics, biotechnology, plant protection, ecology, digital sciences, and socio-economic sciences all need to contribute. It is indeed necessary to combine all possible levers to develop innovations answering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
From producing knowledge to plant breeding
INRA has recognised expertise in plant genetics and breeding with research programmes ranging from basic science to the development of breeding methods. The research groups explore the genetic diversity of crops and related species and utilise this diversity in breeding schemes, including marker-assisted selection, association genetics, genomic selection and participatory breeding. In some cases, new varieties are registered to support specific sectors or to demonstrate the interest of traits overlooked by the private breeding industry. The species and traits worked on at INRA come within the scope of sustainable food systems development. Research is conducted in cooperation with the relevant professional sectors, or in complement to the industry R&D. Methodological approaches are chosen based on their ability to meet challenges in the most effective and responsible way possible, in keeping with existing regulations.
Genome editing technologies have become a key tool in plant genetics and breeding and INRA adopts a strategy regarding the use of these technologies for plant research, in a context of societal and regulatory debate. This strategy is in line with the Institute’s values and with its ambition to contribute to environmental, social and economic progress. It takes into account the recommendations made in Opinion 11 of the Joint INRA-CIRAD-IFREMER Ethics Advisory Committee on new plant breeding techniques. The strategy’s six underlying principles were approved by INRA’s Scientific Advisory Board on 19 September 2018.
Genome editing is today an essential technology for characterizing plant genetic diversity and deciphering gene function and regulation. In several countries, it is also used to engineer targeted mutations in genes of potential or proven agronomic interest and to create new plant varieties.
The 25 July 2018 ruling of the European Court of Justice indicates that all organisms obtained by mutagenesis are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and that only those obtained by means of traditional techniques of mutagenesis developed prior to the adoption of Directive 2001/18 are excluded from its scope. Therefore, plants whose genome has been modified using editing technologies are subject to the GMO regulation including risk assessment, authorisation, traceability and labelling, even in the case of modifications involving no introduction of exogenous DNA fragments in the genome.
In 2017 the French Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment issued a report recommending the re-examination of the regulatory framework to take into account the modified traits and products rather than the techniques used to obtain them. The Office considers that risks and benefits differ depending on whether a plant’s modified traits confer a tolerance to herbicides (as is the case with most commercialised GMOs), a resistance to disease that would allow a significant reduction in the use of pesticides, or tolerance to water deficit in the context of climate change.
Issued in March 2018, Opinion No. 11 of the ethics committee highlights the ethical and political challenges presented by the new plant breeding techniques, and in particular genome editing technologies, with regard to:
1) Possible environmental and health risks
2) The legal status of organisms and products derived from the CRISPR-Cas9 technology
3) Intellectual property in the plant sector
4) The compatibility of genome editing derived innovations with agroecology.
The opinion offers fresh insight in the debate on value systems and the symbolic representations underlying the many identified challenges. It provides recommendations for organisations in terms of social responsibility in research.
INRA’s strategy on the use of plant genome editing technologies aims to address the scientific, regulatory and ethical challenges mentioned above. It is based on six principles, consistent with the values of the Institute and built on INRA’s expertise in genetics and plant breeding.
INRA views as one of its public research missions and a social responsibility to explore the potential benefits of genome editing for plant breeding, but also to assess its limitations and identify the possible health, environmental and socio-economic risks of derived products and the ways in which these products are used. INRA believes it would be irresponsible to delegate this responsibility to foreign public and private stakeholders alone, thus depriving France of the expertise it needs in order to take public action in political, regulatory, economic and environmental matters.
Genome editing technologies can be used to explore genetic variability and study gene function, regulation and evolution, all of which are essential to knowledge building and understanding the living world. Genome editing contributes to new science frontiers that INRA must explore.
Assessing the possibilities offered by genome editing is a legitimate endeavour at INRA in addition to the traditional tools used in plant breeding. Target traits and species will be chosen with the aim of the common good, for uses and production systems promoting environmental, economic and social sustainability, for instance to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides or adapt to climate change.
The creation and characterisation of plants obtained via genome editing are carried out in contained laboratory or greenhouse environments, in accordance with national and European regulation. The justification of field trials to consolidate their agronomic, technological and environmental assessment will be reviewed by a panel of experts under the direction of INRA’s Deputy Director General for Scientific Affairs before being submitted to the necessary regulatory agencies in France or abroad. The panel, whose composition will be approved by INRA’s Scientific Advisory Board, will assess the merits of using genome editing technologies as opposed to alternative methods as well as the potential contribution of the varietal innovations to the agroecological transition.
INRA is committed to the principle of open research and supports the co-construction of multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder research endeavours in the area of genome editing for plant breeding.
INRA defends freedom of access to all genetic resources as provided for in international treaties. It supports the French Plant Variety Certificate (COV), which guarantees farmers’ access to genetic progress, recognises the right of farmers to produce and use farm-saved seeds and promotes genetic progress via free and open access to genetic resources, while ensuring a return on the breeders’ R&D investments. If the intellectual property rights system governing plant varieties were to evolve, INRA would defend the COV inherent values and the non-patentability of plants derived from genomic editing1.
1 Pursuant to the May 2013 and November 2017 opinions of INRA’s Scientific Advisory Board.