The security of food production touches us all. So do the social issues around food security. As a breeder of vegetable varieties and producer of vegetable seeds, Bejo has an important role to play in the availability of healthy food, today and in the future. As a result, we are a participant in discussions about agriculture, plant breeding and the food chain. On many issues, we collaborate with partners such as the industry associations Plantum, ESA and ISF. For a number of relevant topics, we have outlined our position below.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is one whose genetic material has been altered in a way that would not have been possible through natural breeding. The use of breeding techniques that results in genetically modified organisms is subject to severe regulations in most of the countries in the world, however in vegetable crops regulated GMO’s are very uncommon. All varieties in our assortment are obtained through non-GMO plant-breeding methods or methods that are excluded under Directive 2001/18/EC.
New Breeding Techniques
Rapid innovation in the plant breeding sector has resulted in the development of New Breeding Techniques that can considerably shorten the breeding period of new varieties. An example is CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, that can be used for development of varieties with new traits. These can help farmers to do more with less input: less water, less fertilizers, less pesticides, and that better meet consumer demands by providing more nutritious, tastier and healthier plant-based food.
Regulations for the application of New Breeding Techniques are diverse around the world.
In several parts of the world, such as the USA, the approach is to verify the outcome of the product. Products are considered not to be a GMO if an alteration to a trait could also have been realized by evolution and the final product as a result does not show any foreign DNA.
In the EU the approach is to verify the process. In July ‘18 the European Court of Justice decided that the application of New Breeding Techniques, including gene editing, results in products that are considered to be a GMO (under the Directive 2001/18/EU). This decision restricted the potential use of New Breeding Techniques in the EU.
In general, Bejo believes continuous technological development is of vital importance to solve the challenges we are facing with regard to sustainable food production and climate change. In particular to these new breeding techniques Bejo believes they should be considered as non-GMO if the resulting new product could also have been obtained through natural breeding processes alone. Together with existing breeding techniques, New Breeding Techniques will provide the necessary possibilities to develop new sustainable vegetable varieties that meet future needs. It is paramount that there is an international level playing field for the competitive and technological strength of the Dutch and European seed industry, and especially for its growers and farmers.
In March 2015 the Enlarged Board of Appeal, as the highest 'court' of the European Patent Office, clarified that patents may be granted for plants that are obtained by essentially biological processes such as classical crossing and selection. Bejo does not support the development of granting patents on native traits and characteristics, and actually promotes free exchange of biological material under the plant breeder right system (‘Kwekersrecht’). In the meanwhile the Administrative council of the European Patent Office took a decision to amend the relevant regulations in order to exclude from patentability plants obtained exclusively through an essentially biological breeding process, which harmonizes with Bejo’s point of view. As a consequence, in its Notice the European Commission clarified that it was the European legislator’s intention to exclude not only processes but also products obtained by such processes. In order not to block innovative strength in breeding the vegetable seed industry already has created its own system with ILP (International Licensing Platform). This system ensures full access to biological material that contains patented traits among breeding companies that are associated with ILP.
Declining bee population
Over the past century bees have suffered from a population decline. This is a troubling development, as bees are the primary pollinators for both wildflowers and field crops. Multiple factors are considered to be the cause for declining bee populations. Some research suggests that it is related to the use of certain pesticides (neonicotinoids) that are also applied in seed coatings. The research studies are not conclusive at this moment, and alternative forms of applying pesticides (such as granulates or spraying) have negative side effects. We’re keeping a close eye on developments. Bejo maintains thousands of bee colonies in bee farms globally that we nurture for the pollination of our crops, and that also help sustain bee populations in general. In our fields we grow nectar-rich flowers to nourish bees and support biodiversity. To learn more, read 'Bees and Bejo: natural partners in seed production'.
For almost all of our breeding and commercial seed production we rely on bees, flies, other insects or the wind to do the vital work of pollination. However, some crops can only be pollinated manually, and many skilled hands are required to do the job. In some countries it is still common for children to participate in the daily process of earning a family income, which means they are also at risk of being involved in the activities of seed production.
Bejo generally respects local cultures and practices but strongly condemns the involvement of underaged children in working life. We have maximum control over this on our own farms, where we know each employee and where clear guidelines are in place. In some cases, however, local circumstances oblige us to work with third parties and contractors. With these partners we have strict contractual agreements explicitly stating that we do not tolerate any child labour in the production of seeds for Bejo. These producers are visited by third party audit teams, and our own colleagues keep a close watch on conditions when visiting these producers. In areas where it is most needed we facilitate or sponsor access to education to enable children to go to school.. For instance in Guatemala we established the ‘Fundación Centro Educativo Agrícola, Melanie Beemsterboer’, which has already provided education to more than 300 children, many of whom have continued their studies at agricultural institutes.