What we do is so diverse that we decided to use these Frequently Asked Questions to explain some of the concepts involved in 'Our Work'.

Sustainable Agriculture

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food security as a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.í From this definition, food security can be said to have three components: food quantity, food quality and food safety, each of which is necessary to improve a population’s health. Plant breeders and the seed industry have an important role to play in improving global access to quality food through the production of varieties:

  • with improved yields and better ability to resist biotic and abiotic stresses
  • with improved nutritional value (e.g. fatty acid balance, iron and vitamin A content)
  • that limit the development of fungi producing toxins (e.g. mycotoxins on Bt maize)

These contributions from the private sector, complemented by strong public investments in additional agriculture research, institutional capacity, market incentives, effective intellectual property protection, and infrastructure, are helping to meet the full challenge of food security around the world.

ISF understands sustainable agriculture as the evolving management and conservation of the natural resource base in any given region, and the global orientation of technical and institutional change, in such a manner as to ensure the steady attainment and continued, safe satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations.

A sustainable agriculture must attempt to sustain all biodiversity through a blending of innovation and traditional local knowledge.

A balanced diversity of sustainable systems must be encouraged which share the objectives of reasonable environmental management, conservation of land, water, air, plant, animal and energy resources, technical appropriateness, economic feasibility and social acceptability.

Organic seed has different meanings and, depending on people, may refer to:

  • Seed of any variety produced organically, i.e., according to organic production standards
  • Seed of varieties specially adapted to organic agriculture and developed through any breeding techniques, except recombinant DNA, available to plant breeders
  • Seed of so-called ëorganic varietiesí bred using methods that donít ìbreak the continuity between the soil and the plantî. This definition of breeding methods prohibits all in-vitro techniques (see also ISFís position paper on Plant Breeding for Organic Farming)

Recently many countries have passed legislations that call for the compulsory use of seed that has been organically produced (category a. above) (see European Union and US legislations) for crops to be certified as having been produced organically.

During the international Organic Seed Conference held in Rome in July 2004 several speakers reported that the production of organic seed in sufficient quantity, quality and varietal diversity is challenging for several reasons: lower yields/ha, seed quality concerns such as germination and vigour, seed health and physical purity. Nevertheless, production in most cases is possible although in many cases more expensive.

In response to the demand from the organic sector, companies of ISF members have been supplying organic seed. However, they have incurred additional investment (e.g. start-up and inventory) and faced regulatory and market uncertainties. Inconsistency in the enforcement of regulatory requirements has been a particularly difficult issue. Reducing uncertainties through a consistent enforcement of regulations and producing organic seed under contract would encourage companies to increase the availability and range of organic seed.

The term monoculture is used in the two following contexts:

  • agricultural system(s) where the same crop is grown over several seasons on the same field, without crop rotation. An extreme example is some forms of paddy rice cultivation where rice has been grown over several centuries on the same field. Monoculture has developed in parallel with the industrial revolution in countries with fewer and fewer farmers and an increasing urban population to feed. Uniformity of crop is generally sought to facilitate mechanization and improve the quality of the harvested product
  • in opposition to ëassociated cultureí, mainly in tropical countries, where a single crop is grown in a field, regardless of crop rotation. According to some views, associated culture would better exploit soil, water and incident sunlight resources. However, it makes agriculture mechanization very difficult, if not impossible

Both monoculture and ëassociated cultureí can be extensive or intensive, and have the same level of sustainability. The choice does not depend on sustainability factors, rather on socio-economic ones.

Sensu stricto, ìorganic agricultureî is an agricultural management system without any input resulting from a synthesis process. More recently, various regulatory definitions have been given to organic agriculture, mainly based on restrictive use of off-farm inputs.

Organic agriculture, sensu stricto or sensu lato, may or may not be sustainable according to the way it is implemented, and to socio-economical environment in which it is developed. For instance in many parts of the world where population is growing at a high rate, and seen from the perspective of food security and environmental protection organic agriculture is probably not going to be a sustainable solution.

Plant Breeding Innovation

Put simply, plant breeding is the art and science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics to improve the overall function of various plants and crop systems.

Plant breeding is both a traditional and a hi-tech activity based on thousands of years’ experience and the latest research. Plant breeders have been working to improve plant varieties for several thousand years – long before breeding existed as a formal discipline. Historically, early farmers and agriculturists realized the value of natural variation in plant characteristics (what modern breeders call ‘genetic diversity’) and exploited this variability by saving and planting seed from plants that exhibited desired traits. Some of the traits selected included larger and more seeds, shorter plants, sweeter fruits and other characteristics that improved quality and quantity.

With the predicted growth in the global population and the effects of climate change, varieties with increased yields and resistance to drought and disease are critical if we are to provide enough food for future generations. Plant breeding is the area of human endeavor most likely to improve sustainable crop production in the long term.

A plant breeder is a scientist who specializes in the development of new varieties with improved yield and desired characteristics such as disease resistance, qualitative characteristic or increased resilience to environmental stresses. These new varieties benefit farmers, the environment consumers and society as a whole.

Modern plant breeders have to integrate in their work the results of many scientific disciplines such as plant biology, genetics or statistics. In fact, nowadays breeding programs are often managed by teams of scientists from many different fields of expertise.

Plant breeders improve the quality and performance of existing field and horticultural crops through the development of new varieties. They aim to develop useful production traits (e.g disease resistance, drought tolerance); or to improve consumer characteristics (e.g nutritional quality, flavor, appearance).

The continued development of new varieties is vital to consumers and the agricultural industry as there are constant challenges to meet market requirements, consumer demands, resistance to evolving diseases and pests, and to increase the productivity and durability of existing commodity crops. Most professional plant breeding today is done by private entities and public institutions.


In 1865 Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel described the principles governing the genetic laws of inheritance in plants. Since then scientific breakthroughs have dramatically accelerated plant improvement. What would have taken farmers centuries to achieve, is now accomplished in years. Increased understanding of plant biology and plant genes has enabled plant breeders to more precisely develop useful characteristics such as disease resistance or drought tolerance. These breakthroughs enable the continuous development of new plant varieties better adapted to meet the challenges facing agriculture and society today and in the future.

Some of the latest innovations comprise a collection of tools and techniques that allow plant breeders to create genetic variation using gene editing. The aim of these genomic tools is to introduce variety into plant populations and harness genetic diversity for future generations.

Alternatively, specific genes from a wild plant relative or older variety can be inserted into a modern, commercial plant variety.

These innovations achieve the same result as traditional plant breeding methods in less time and with greater precision. In other words, breeders are using the plant’s (or its wild relative’s) own genetic makeup to create genetic variation, leading to improved or new plant characteristics.

‘Plant breeding innovation’ is the term used by the International Seed Federation to describe the evolving continuum of plant breeding methods. Today’s innovations in plant breeding are developed using sophisticated science and technology, including cell biology, genome and proteome research, gene mapping and marker-assisted breeding. These innovations are sometimes referred to as new or precision breeding techniques.


The use of plant breeding innovation to develop new varieties provides environmental and economic benefits, meets consumers’ needs and contributes to their well-being.

  • Increased and reliable crop yields: Plant varieties that are better able to withstand attacks from pests and disease, and is more resilient to the effects of climate change results in more abundant and reliable harvests for farmers. Plants that are regionally adapted to different environments and growing conditions means a wider variety of crops can be produced from the same land.
  • Enhanced nutrition and taste: Thanks to innovations in plant breeding farmers can grow a wide range of crops with improved nutritional values (such as higher protein level or better fatty acid composition) contributing to diverse and balanced diets.

With a global population that is estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050 (according to www.world.population.co.uk) and increasingly scarce land, the most significant benefit of innovation in plant breeding to society is supporting sustainable agriculture and food security.

The majority of new plant varieties are derived by selection after iteratively crossing existing varieties together to create new genetic combinations. Importantly, these existing varieties are in turn derived from varieties with a long history of safe use. A defining feature of modern plant breeding is the extensive and rigorous testing which continues until the final product is commercially available.

Plant breeders test for a variety of characteristics to meet consumer needs such as taste, color and texture. They also test for characteristics that are less obvious to consumers such as yield, resistance to pests, and consistency of performance across diverse environments and conditions.

Because the environment can influence the expression of certain characteristics, plant breeders typically evaluate pre-commercial varieties in multiple environments over several years/generations to ensure consistency of performance. The scrutiny that plant breeders routinely apply to the development of new varieties development is the foundation for a food supply that is safe, nutritious and diverse.

Countries currently use a range of approaches based on different criteria to evaluate and regulate new products entering the market. If a product is regulated in Country A we ned to use the same criteria to determine what will be regulated in Country B. Similarly, products requiring a pre-market review process in Country C should be subject to the same requirement in Country D.

The discussion about the future of plant breeding is an opportunity to achieve alignment (among governments) on the criteria used by governments to determine the scope of regulations applied to (plant) varieties developed using the latest plant breeding methods.

Without clear public policy, the use of these breeding methods may be stalled at the research and development stage.

The International Seed Federation promotes innovation in plant breeding and advocates government policy that is based on sound scientific principles. Consistent science-based policy means that farmers and consumers around the world can enjoy the benefits of products developed through the latest breeding methods.

Without consistent criteria, there is the potential for trade disruption, barriers and fraud in the commercial context of the global seed trade. Investment and innovation could be impeded, limiting the realization of the societal and environmental benefits of innovation in plant breeding. If there is limited access to technologies, limited acreage crops or smaller markets which cannot justify a return on investment sufficient to cover the regulatory costs, would be unable to benefit from them. This would be detrimental to the improvement of a wide range of crops for a various traits and markets. ISF seeks to ensure diversity in crops, varieties and market participants.

These criteria are based on the following principal:

“Plant varieties developed through the latest breeding methods should not be differentially regulated if they are similar or indistinguishable from varieties that could have been produced through earlier breeding methods.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food security as a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.í From this definition, food security can be said to have three components: food quantity, food quality and food safety, each of which is necessary to improve a population’s health. Plant breeders and the seed industry have an important role to play in improving global access to quality food through the production of varieties:

  • with improved yields and better ability to resist biotic and abiotic stresses
  • with improved nutritional value (e.g. fatty acid balance, iron and vitamin A content)
  • that limit the development of fungi producing toxins (e.g. mycotoxins on Bt maize)

These contributions from the private sector, complemented by strong public investments in additional agriculture research, institutional capacity, market incentives, effective intellectual property protection, and infrastructure, are helping to meet the full challenge of food security around the world.

In the view of a breeder, exotic germplasm is all plant material not adapted to the area he is breeding for. Such material may be wild types or other varieties that are, of course, adapted to their (ëexoticí) areas of origin. Despite their lack of adaptation to the new area, exotic material may have important characteristics that could enhance the quality or performance of material into which it is introduced. Examples of characteristics or traits introduced from exotic material are resistances to fungi or viral diseases, and mechanisms useful for breeding hybrids (cytoplasmic male sterility and restorer genes).

Exotic material requires a long period of breeding and large financial investment to be incorporated into improved varieties. This limits its direct use by breeders, who prefer crossing improved and adapted germplasm in breeding programs.

ISF considers the definition used in the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention to be the most appropriate. It reads as follows:

Variety means a plant grouping within a single botanical taxon of the lowest known rank, which grouping, irrespective of whether the conditions for the grant of a breederís right are fully met, can be:

  • defined by the expression of the characteristics resulting from a given genotype or combination of genotypes,
  • distinguished from any other plant grouping by the expression of at least one of the said characteristics and
  • considered as a unit with regard to its suitability for being propagated unchanged

Any genetic material of plant origin that is of potential value for creating improved germplasm is a plant genetic resource. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are, in general, sub-divided in the following five categories:

  • wild and weed species that are closely related to cultivated species
  • landraces
  • special genetic stocks including elite and current breeders’ lines
  • cultivated varieties
  • obsolete varieties

The two first categories are often termed exotic germplasm by plant breeders, since such materials require long-term pre-breeding programmes in order to gradually transfer their attractive characteristics into an improved and adapted genetic background that can be used in variety breeding.

Today due to genetic engineering, genes from unrelated species are also considered as plant genetic resources. Examples of such genetic resources include Arabidopsis from which genes of interest are being introduced into pea and legumes whose ability to form nodules is a characteristic of interest in tomato.

Not all genetic resources have the same immediate utility. Much depends on the crop and the trait of interest. Wild relatives of cultivated species, for instance, require extensive adaptation and pre-breeding before they can be used in breeding of cultivated varieties. Public or private breeders use mostly germplasm from adapted and productive commercial varieties in the creation of new varieties.

Intellectual Property

Plant Breeder’s Rights are intellectual property rights given to a person who has developed a variety. The variety must be:

  • new
  • clearly distinguishable from any other variety whose existence is a matter of common knowledge
  • sufficiently uniform in its relevant characteristics, and
  • stable

The duration of a right is always limited in time. Its scope and the duration are defined a minima in the various acts of the UPOV Convention. There are certain compulsory exceptions and Plant Breeder’s Rights don’t extend to acts done:

  • privately and for non-commercial purposes (subsistence farmers are not bound by Plant Breeder’s Rights)
  • for experimental purposes
  • for the purpose of breeding new varieties from the protected variety. The newly bred varieties, if not essentially derived from the initial one, may be freely commercialised by their developers

Given the above definition of Plant Breeders Rights, ISF does not consider it possible to protect mere discoveries from resources of common knowledge and a fortiori genetic resources deposited in genebanks, as they are not distinct. Neither does ISF consider Plant Breeders Rights to be an appropriation of the genome of a species.

A variety developed by a farmer is eligible to be protected by a Plant Breeders Right (PBR) if it meets the requirements of distinctness, uniformity, and stability. Eligibility will also be determined by the requirements of the national PBR Act and regulations in the country of application including provisions of prior sale and duration of rights.

Contrary to Farmers’ Rights with which it is frequently confused, Farmers’ Exemption (also called Farmers’ Privilege) is very well defined. It is a consequence of an exception to Plant Breederís Rights as per the UPOV Convention.

The 1978 Act of the UPOV Convention states that the production of seed of a protected variety for purposes of commercial marketing is restricted. That means a contrario that, except if national laws are more stringent than the UPOV Convention (a a minima convention) (see Plant Breeder’s Rights), farmers are allowed to produce seed of protected varieties for their own use.

The 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention states that private acts for non-commercial purposes are not covered by Plant Breederís Rights. In addition, the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention provides for an optional exception to Plant Breederís Rights indicating that each contracting party may, within reasonable limits and subject to the safeguarding of the legitimate interests of the breeder, restrict the plant breeder’s right in relation to any variety. This is in order to permit farmers to use for propagating purposes on their own holdings, the product of the harvest, which they have obtained by planting on their own holdings, the protected variety. Most of the national laws and regional regulations allow such exceptions.

These exceptions provided for in the 1978 and the 1991 Acts of the UPOV Convention are known as “Farmers’ Exemption” and the seed so produced is known as “farm-saved seed”.
It must be noted that, in no case, the Farmers’ Exemption provided for in the UPOV Convention allows farm-saved seed of protected varieties to be sold. Of course, farmers continue to have the right to sell seed of non-protected varieties.

In ISF’s view Farmer’s Rights as defined by the International Treaty for PGRFA (see Farmer’s Rights) and Plant Breederís Rights as defined by UPOV (see Plant Breeder’s Rights) are compatible in the following cases:

Crop production

Farmers choose varieties, landraces or improved, best suited to their conditions and retain their right to choose varieties and crops. The incentive provided to plant breeders through rights (accorded by UPOV or other effective sui generis systems) makes available an increasing number of improved varieties to farmers, widening the choice at their disposal.

If a farmer chooses to buy seeds of a protected variety, the breeder receives the benefit through the plant breederís rights and allows him/her to continue breeding and providing farmers with improved varieties.

Plant Breeding

Both farmers and professional breeders have the right to do breeding. Assuming that a number of farmers are continuing to select at harvest or even crossing varieties for breeding purposes, there is no provision in the UPOV Convention that prevents farmers from doing so. On the contrary, even protected varieties can be used to do so. Nor are they prevented from freely using the new varieties they have created, except if they are considered to be essentially derived. If these new varieties are distinct, sufficiently homogeneous and stable (in order to recognize/identify them) they are protectable under UPOV or other effective sui generis systems.

Farm Saved Seed

As far as the poorest farmers in the least developed countries (i.e. subsistence farmers) are concerned, they benefit from the exception to Plant Breederís Rights for acts done privately and for non-commercial purposes. They can save seed produced on their farm for re-sowing on the same farm.As to farmers integrated in a commercial chain, each country may, according to its economic and social situation, take special dispositions authorizing the use of farm-saved seed on a case-by-case basis, under specific conditions, whilst safeguarding the legitimate interests of the breeder. The only absolute restriction is the prohibition of selling farm-saved seed of protected varieties.

Crop Biodiversity

As farmers can use both improved varieties and landraces, diversity in the material they use does not decrease. On the contrary it increases.There is no correlation between the possible decrease of crop diversity and Plant Breeder’s Rights. The fact that a variety is private or public has no influence whatsoever on biological diversity. Plant Breeder’s Rights favour diversity by:

  • better controlling dissemination of improved varieties
  • encouraging competition between breeders and thus making more varieties available
  • preventing commercialization of near identical varieties through the implementation of the concept of essentially derived varieties
  • encouraging evaluation of breeding material and use of greater genetic diversity

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that if legislations concerning Farmers’ Rights are aimed at establishing an international fund for improving the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, Farmersí Rights are not incompatible with Plant Breederís Rights.

The concept of essentially derived variety was introduced into the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention in order to avoid plagiarism and to fill the gap between Plant Breeder’s Rights and patents, a gap which was becoming important due to the increasing use of patented genetic traits in plant varieties introduced through genetic engineering.

An essentially derived variety is a variety, which is distinct and predominantly derived from a protected initial variety, while retaining the essential characteristics of that initial variety.

Essentially derived varieties may be obtained, for example by the selection of a natural or induced mutant, or of a somaclonal variant, the selection of a variant individual from plants of the initial variety, backcrossing, or transformation by genetic engineering.

The commercialization of an essentially derived variety needs the authorization of the owner of the rights vested in the initial variety.

The concept of essentially derived variety does not at all abolish the Breeder’s Exemption, as free access to protected plant varieties for breeding purposes is maintained. It is not a threat to biodiversity. On the contrary, it favors biodiversity, encouraging breeders to develop and market new varieties.

When a variety has fulfilled the criteria for Plant Breeder’s Rights (novelty, distinctness, sufficient homogeneity, stability), it is listed in a national register or catalogue. Such registers/catalogues have no purpose other than to make publicly known that the variety is protected. They exist in every country that has a plant variety protection scheme in place.

These registers/catalogues should not be confused with the national lists/catalogues developed by some countries on which varieties must be listed before they receive the authorization to be placed on the market. The criteria for being listed on such catalogues are also distinctness, sufficient homogeneity and stability and some crops, mainly field crops, must also meet the set criteria for cultural use, known as VCU (Value for Cultivation and Use).

VCU registers/catalogues may have a negative impact on the diversity of material available to farmers.

A Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) is a contractual agreement signed between the supplier and the recipient of a resource and sets out the rights and obligations of both parties. As any contract, it is binding on the parties and in the case of a dispute subject to contract laws.

An MTA for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) should define:

  • activities allowed with the accessed germplasm (e.g. breeding and research)
  • what is protectable by intellectual property rights and the limits to these rights (e.g. material that is the result of a breeding or development process)
  • how benefits arising from the use of the accessed germplasm will be shared (e.g. access to characterization and evaluation data, access to improved germplasm, sharing of some commercial benefits)

An MTA may be agreed upon on a multilateral basis, such as in the framework of the International Treaty on PGRFA, or bilaterally on the basis of mutually agreed terms between the supplier and the recipient of the PGRFA. (See also the ISF position paper on MTAs for the Multilateral System of FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture).

Article 12.3.d of the recently adopted international treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture states that ëRecipients [of PGRFA accessed from the Multilateral System] shall not claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the PGRFA, or their genetic parts or components, in the form received from the Multilateral System.

ISF interprets this article, in particular the term ëin the form receivedí as follows:

  • it is not possible to claim any intellectual property or other rights that limit the facilitated access to the PGRFA, or their genetic parts or components, in the form it was received from the Multilateral System.
  • it is possible to claim intellectual property or other rights that limit access to the genetic parts or components isolated or derived from the material received provided that the patentability criteria are fulfilled, in particular the one dealing with utility. However, the rights granted should not limit access to the initial genetic material. A genetic sequence without any proven research or developmental step should not be eligible for patent protection.

The concept of equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources has gained official recognition with the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It has several components depending on the type of genetic resources. The main components are:

  • exchange of information, transfer of technology and capacity building (non-monetary benefits)
  • sharing of commercial benefits (monetary benefits)

The most important aspects for suppliers of genetic resources, in particular for those based in developing countries, are access to information and technology and capacity building. If well used, non-monetary benefits ñ access to information and technology, and capacity building ñ may be more useful than monetary benefits as they have far reaching impacts for the future. In addition, ISF considers that the provision provided under UPOV whereby commercially released varieties are available without authorisation of the owner as germplasm for further breeding or research purposes is in itself a benefit.

According to a survey carried out in 2001 among ISF (then ASSINSEL) members, many breeding companies have developed collaborative activities with national and/or international programs. About two thirds of the respondents assist national programs, also in developing countries/countries with economies in transition, in maintaining evaluating and characterising PGRFA, either technically or financially, and one third provide assistance to international programs.

Technology transfer, as it relates to the maintenance of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA), is also an important commitment for many ISF members. While some members are based in developing countries, others have breeding programs there and some also conduct training and collaborative research programs for subsistence crops beyond their commercial portfolios. More than 40% of ISF members grant licenses free of charge to developing countries. Some companies also participate in international programs for technology transfer.

ISF has been proactive in the matter of commercial benefit sharing. The spirit of a position paper adopted in 1998 by ASSINSEL forms the basis of Article 13.2.d(ii) of the International Treaty on PGRFA. It is important to mention that commercial products arising from the use of PGRFA after the CBD came into force are still in the developmental stages and therefore, sharing from the benefits thereof is limited to date


Genetically modified (GM) crops are those that have been genetically enhanced using modern biotechnology to carry one or more beneficial new traits. Modern biotechnology as defined by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety means the application of:

  • a. In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
  • b. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family,
  • that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection

The first GM crop developed through the use of transgenic methods and approved for cultivation was the ëFlavr Savrí tomato in 1994 in the US. Since then the development of transgenic crops has been rapid, from less than 5 million ha cultivated globally in 1996 to around 59 million ha in 2002 (See the annual publication by Clive James for the global status of commercialized transgenic crops for the latest figures). The main commercially released crops so far have traits of agronomic interest, the so-called ëinputí traits, such as herbicide and insect resistance. In the short to medium term, transgenesis will be used to transfer the so-called ëoutputí traits in crops such as: nutritional content e.g., higher vitamin content in soybean, oilseed rape and rice; and higher iron content in rice.

  • nutritional profile e.g., improved amino acid composition of maize, improved fatty acid composition of maize, soybean and oilseed rape
  • improved processing e.g., through modified starch in maize and potato, higher solid content in potato and improved fibre quality of cotton
  • reduction of post-harvest losses e.g., through delayed ripening in papaya and improved storage capacity of potato

The benefits and risks of GM crops are assessed by comparing the new crop and/or associated technologies (pest management or food processing) to its ëconventionalí counterpart. Input traits in general lower the use of pesticides and as a consequence, benefit the environment and improve farmer revenues. More specifically, insect resistant varieties limit post-harvest losses (insect damage cause up to 50% loss of the harvested product in developing countries) and production of mycotoxins (the source of serious health problems), and herbicide tolerant varieties reduce soil erosion. Output traits will be of considerable benefit to consumers through access to healthier food.

The development of GM crops has benefited farmers, consumers and the environment. In a recent analysis of the total benefits to US society from Bt maize, when 6.5 million ha of a total of 32 million ha was planted by Bt maize, Wu (2003) showed that the major beneficiaries are consumers (63% of the total gains equalling USD 848 million). Maize growers are the second largest beneficiaries (22%) followed by the seed industry (15%). Non-Bt maize farmers made a net loss of USD 416 million.

Today, data shows that GM crops and foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts: millions of hectares worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops and billions of people have eaten GM foods without any documented harmful effect on human health or the environment.

Nevertheless, ISF is aware that as with any new product GM crops may be associated with some risks. These risks must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For instance the use of herbicide tolerance genes could result in the evolution of ësuper weedsí resistant to herbicides*, or the introduction of allergens in the novel food through the transfer of genes from a species known to be allergenic. Some aspects are not specific to GM crops such as insects developing resistances to Bt genes. All these risks are taken seriously into consideration during the pre-release risk analysis and, where needed, specific risk management procedures may be established to prevent hazardous products being put on the market.

* The situation, if it were to occur, is not as dire it is seems. It is not dissimilar to the circumstances prevailing before the development of the herbicide tolerant variety.
Reference: Wu, F. 2003. Explaining consumer resistance to genetically modified corn: An analysis of the distribution of benefits and risks. Risk Analysis, Best Paper Issue (in press).

Adventitious presence means accidental, unintentional presence. It is commonly used to characterize seed lots, e.g. adventitious presence in a seed lot of ìoff-typesî not conforming to the description of the variety.A low level of adventitious presence of off-types is unavoidable in biological processes such as seed production. In national and international seed regulations, there are recognized standards for the level of adventitious presence of off-types. These standards are typically based on visual assessment of the seed production field and the resulting seed lot.

Adventitious Presence of Genetically Modified (GM) Material in Non-GM Products
The adventitious presence of GM material is the unintended occurrence of plant material from crops improved through modern biotechnology in other seed, food and feed. It occurs through natural pollen flow or from co-mingling of grain that occurs in the production/distribution system. It is the logical and unavoidable consequence of the development of GM crops in many parts of the world. In contrast to off-types mentioned in the previous section, which are checked on phenotypic characteristics, adventitious presence of GM material are in general checked based on DNA characteristics.

  • GM material that is found as adventitious presence in non-GM products is of three types:
    • GM material that is domestically approved
    • GM material that is not domestically approved but has been approved in another country
    • GM material that is still at the research stage and has received approval for field-tests in any country member of the OECD Seed Schemes

Approval may be for different uses – cultivation, feed or food. Adventitious presence of GM material in categories 1 and 2 are more likely to occur. GM material in category 3 in non-GM products is less likely to occur but nevertheless requires consideration. In countries where labeling of GM products is required, accepted standards for the level of adventitious presence of GM material in non-GM products is necessary so as to:

  • review the quality assurance practices for seed production and, if necessary, to design new quality assurance processes that minimize adventitious presence through pollen flow and co-mingling
  • establish and optimize laboratory standards for assessing the presence of GM material in non-GM products
  • establish appropriate regulatory clearance procedures under OECD (or other international agencies) for safety assessment if GM material under consideration has not been approved in country of import
  • determine the market need for and cost to produce seed material with a specific tolerance for GM material
  • determine a workable standard below which products don’t need to be labeled, if at all, keeping in view its impact on cost of goods and market demand

In nature, the expression of genes is regulated by several factors, which may be internal to the organism (e.g. proteins or other molecules resulting from the metabolism of the organism itself) or external (e.g. climatic factors).

Conventional plant breeding is aimed at introducing and recombining genes in order to improve crop performance. Modern biotechnology offers new tools (recombinant DNA, molecular markers, etc.) that facilitate and speed up the plant breeding process. Some can be used to insert new genes or remove specific genes (e.g. those coding for toxic or allergenic compounds). Others can be used to regulate the expression of genes that are, for instance, not desirable at a certain stage of crop development.

Methods that regulate gene expression are called Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs). In a sense GURTs can be seen not as a new technology but as a ëdomesticationí of the regulation of gene expression, a mechanism that occurs naturally in any organism. Plant breeders have until now focused their activity on the introduction and recombination of genes. GURTs will allow them to work on the expression (or the non-expression) of genes at any given stage of crop development or any generation. Some potential applications of GURTs could be:

  • increased production of specific molecules
  • regulation of the expression of resistance genes so that resistance is expressed only when necessary
  • preventing the spread of unwanted plants created by cross-pollination between GM plants and non-GM ones, landraces or wild relatives
  • improved protection of intellectual property rights
    (See ISF position paper on GURTs)

Molecular breeding developed in the 80s with the evolution of DNA marker technologies. The use of molecular markers in association with linkage maps and genomics to select plants with desirable traits based on a genetic assay(s) can make plant breeding more precise, rapid and cost effective in comparison to phenotypic selection. It also offers the possibility of addressing previously unattainable goals.

There are many applications for the use of DNA markers in breeding programs and they can be arranged in the four following broad groups defined by the goal:

  • enhanced knowledge of breeding material and systems, e.g. better understanding of Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) and as a result more effective breeding
  • rapid introgression or backcross breeding of simple characters: the number of back-crosses required can be reduced drastically if markers for the character to be introduced and for the genetic background of the recurrent parent are identified
  • early or easy indirect character selection: this is important for genes that cannot be detected at an early development stage, e.g. high lysine and tryptophan genes in maize
  • new goals not possible through traditional breeding: e.g. pyramiding disease resistance genes with indistinguishable phenotypes

Today, the main DNA markers used in breeding programs are Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (AFLP), microsatellites (SSRs) and Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs). Each of these markers has different advantages and limits. Although still limited in the area of plants, the use of single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”) is fast developing as a marker for germplasm fingerprinting, marker-assisted backcrossing and breeding. It is likely that general development in DNA marker technology will bring new tools capable of very high throughput genotyping for genetic mapping, marker assisted breeding and plant germplasm protection.

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