KWS in dialogue
Information update for decision-makers
Currently there is a debate in Europe about new plant breeding
techniques. At its heart stands the question about the regulatory
evaluation of those new methods.
To make an assessment under existing
laws, it is important to differentiate
among the various methods. Some
can be classified as genetic engineer-
ing. Others are comparable to tradi-
tional breeding: they maintain the spe-
cies barrier and result in plants that
could have also occurred naturally,
which makes them nature-identical
KWS SAAT SE advocates those latter
methods being evaluated as conven-
tional breeding methods. The nature-
identical results lead us to the basic
conviction that plants should be jugded
by their characteristics and by their
concrete properties when used as
food for humans and as animal feed,
as well as by their interaction with the
environment. The proper assessment of
the new methods and an appropriate
classification of products using these
new methods is a prerequisite to
fostering development in plant breeding
in Germany and Europe, with breeding
being an integral part of sustainable
and modern agriculture.
The new methods offer a new perspec-
tive for plant breeding – especially in
Europe. We are convinced that with
these methods we will embark upon
a path that meets the demands of cur-
rent political and societal realities.
In 2050, nearly ten billion people will populate our planet –
almost twice as many as in 1990.
Feeding the growing world population
poses an enormous challenge for the
global farming community and the
global agricultural business. More than
ever before, sustainable land use is
key, along with stable and reliable yield.
Plant breeding makes a significant
contribution to that goal.
Crops like corn, wheat or potatoes
have been feeding mankind for many
centuries. Changing environments and
lifestyles have challenged mankind
again and again to use the knowledge
of their time to adapt agriculture to
their nutritional needs.
New breeding methods provide a
unique opportunity going forward.
Their robustness and simplicity will
significantly speed up the development
and release of new, well adapted,
stable and high yielding crop varieties.
They will mitigate the ever increasing
problems with pests, diseases, droughts
and soil degradation triggered by
climate change and help secure global
food production in sufficient quantities
and at affordable prices.
Development of the
(in billion people)
Global Food Production
(Number of people who will
need to be fed per hectare
of arable land)
1950 2000 2050
Sources: UN World Population Prospects 2015 and World Development Report 1998/99
of plant breeding
The history of plant breeding started with selecting plants with
especially desired traits. This was followed by cross-breeding, hybrid
and mutation breeding, later genetic engineering and marker-
assisted breeding, to name just a few. Continous development was
necessary in order to find new solutions to the steadily increasing
needs of mankind. We now have the opportunity to further expand
the breeder’s toolkit.
In evolution, the genetic material of
plants changes constantly. In nature,
this happens by coincidence and is
called mutation, a permanent alteration
of the genes. A prominent example is
the four-leaf clover. Mutations contrib-
ute to the genetic variety of plants.
Often positive traits occur that are inte-
resting to breeders. In order to achieve
these effects, mutations can be brought
about artificially, but results cannot
be predetermined and changes are
random. In order to change specific
traits intentionally, huge amounts of
seeds must be treated, cultivated and
examined – a tremendous effort.
Homozygous parental lines not related
to each other are cross-bred. From
this, heterozygous hybrids emerge that
carry the positive traits of their parents
and thus exhibit improved performance.
However, breeding and producing
hybrid seed is a very elaborate process
and requires numerous work steps.
On the other hand, the additional yield
of hybrid seed is remarkable.
It all began with that extra edge. In the
Neolithic age, farmers found certain
grain plants to be more robust and
nutritious than others and kept the
high-quality seeds for sowing in the
next year. Thus, they only cultivated
plants with positive traits, and the first
crop plants came into existence.
The principle of selection had been
In the middle of the 19th century Gregor
Mendel postulated the laws of inher-
itance. For the first time, he made it
possible to describe how traits are
passed on from generation to genera-
tion. Based on Mendel’s findings,
plants can be cross-bred in a targeted
way. Plants with specific genetic
traits are combined. Progeny carrying
the desired traits of both parents are
selected and propagated.
With the help of genetic engineering,
genes from species that cannot be
cross-bred naturally are transferred
across the species barrier. Alternatively,
native genes of a plant are switched
off. This produces genetically engineered
plants that could not have developed in
nature. With these processes, breeders
increase the palette of possible traits.
Scientists transferred genes for the first
time at the beginning of the 1980s.
In marker-assisted selection, breeders
examine the composition of genes
with molecular tools, called molecular
markers. Thanks to genome research
they can detect without elaborate trials
which plants should be cross-bred to
achieve a desired result.
The new methods.
With this new method oligonucleotides
are used to change individual DNA
sequences at predefined loci of the
genome. This results in a mutation in the
genome which also occurs in nature.
The next step:
Writing the next chapter: highly precise breeding methods
allow for results nature itself would produce.
A multitude of new methods create
plants that are nature-identical, mean-
ing they could have been the result
of a traditional breeding method or of
a coincidental natural mutation. These
plants are no different from conven-
tionally bred plants – neither in their
genetic structure nor in their proper-
ties. They do not contain any foreign
genes or genes that were modified
outside the plant.
The essential difference: what nature
only brings about coincidentally, what
the traditional breeder needs to work
on for years can be achieved by mod-
ern methods specifically and pre-
cisely in a very short time. The results
adhere to what is possible in nature
and are in accordance with the cross-
breeding and recombination possi-
bilities described by Mendel. At the
same time, they make it possible to
plan coincidence and thus for more
efficient and effective breeding.
These new methods can be used in
many ways. Depending on how they
are applied, some of them can result
in genetically modified plants. For this
reason a differentiated view should
be taken in assessing them. Zinc Finger,
TALEN and CRISPR/Cas can be used
in different ways. Those methods
in which no genes are transferred are
called variant 1 or 2. The following
overview shows how plants are gen-
erated using these new methods.
4.CRISPR/Cas (in the defined
In contrast to TALEN 1/2 and Zinc
Finger 1/2 a nucleic-acid-protein-
complex is used to bind and cut the
DNA. The nucleic acid binds a specific
DNA sequence in the genome and the
protein cuts the DNA at the specific
loci. No genes – neither foreign
nor closely related – are inserted.
The desired effects are mutations
at predefined loci.
5.RNA-directed DNA methylation
This new method emulates natural
epigenetic modifications of the DNA
via methylation. Incorporated methyl
groups, one of the smallest chemical
units, induce the deactivation of tar-
geted genes over several generations.
The DNA sequence is not modified.
True to type
The bred plants are
conform with varieties
that are cross-bred or re-
combined in a natural way.
Thus, a firm limit is set:
only what can come into
existence naturally will
come into existence at all.
It all stays in the
family. No genes are
those of a closely
related nor a foreign
species. Corn stays
corn, potato stays
potato and beet
3.TALEN (in the defined
Similar to Zinc Finger 1/2, proteins
composed of two functional domains
(DNA-binding domain and nuclease
domain) bind to a specific DNA se-
quence in the genome and cut the DNA
at the specific loci. No genes – neither
foreign nor closely related – are insert-
ed. The desired effects are mutations
at predefined loci.
2.Zinc Finger (in the variants 1/2)
As with the new ODM method, muta-
tions are generated at predefined loci.
Proteins (Zinc Finger nucleases) are
used that consist of two functional
domains. The Zinc Finger domain of
the protein fuses to the desired gene
in the plant’s genome and the nu-
clease domain cuts the DNA precisely.
The new methods are the topic of
political discussion. According to the
EU Directive 2001/18, an organism is
to be rated as genetically modified
when “its genetic material was changed
in a way that is not possible to achieve
naturally by cross-breeding and/or
According to this definition, many of
the new methods do not create genet-
ically modified organisms. Conse-
quently, the German Federal Office of
Consumer Protection and Food Safety
(BVL) as well as federal offices of five
other EU member states classified an
rapeseed that was bred on the basis
of the ODM method as “not genetically
We concur with this perspective. If the
results are identical with those reached
by means of conventional breeding –
which is accepted in Europe – and can
also occure naturally, the new methods
should be evaluated accordingly.
This differentiated approach should
be applied in any evaluation. The new
processes are effective, readily applic-
able and can be used by many small
and medium-sized breeding compa-
nies. Use of the new breeding meth-
ods would increase the competitive-
ness of European agriculture as
compared to other parts of the world
that already benefit from innovation-
friendly environments. The European
market would gain in autonomy and
significance. Otherwise increasingly
stringent requirements would inevitably
discriminate against smaller companies
and public research.
In evaluating green genetic engineer-
ing, Germany and Europe have taken
a special path which we, as breeders
working for farmers and consumers,
respect. However, from a scientific
viewpoint, there is no substantive evi-
dence why plants that are generated
with genetic engineering should be
rejected per se.
That makes it all the more important
for the world of politics and the gener-
al public to stay receptive and objec-
tive when it comes to new methods.
If we applied the regulations for genet-
ic engineering to every new breeding
method, we would disconnect a whole
continent from a method that mankind
has been using for 12,000 years: to
adapt the plants that feed us to our
Head of Communications
KWS SAAT SE
Grimsehlstraße 31, 37574 Einbeck
+49 (0) 5561 311-334
Would you like to actively
participate in this dialogue?
Then do so.
Let’s discuss this together!
Evaluation with a sense
In breeding as in regulatory decision-making,
our goal must be to evaluate each method precisely.
Classical and new methods that result in nature-identical plants are a
priority for us in developing products for Europe. This is what we focus on;
this is what we are committed to. We strive to meet the demands customers
and society are placing on our work as plant breeders, and to make
them the guideline for our actions. Conditions vary across the 70 countries
in which KWS SAAT SE operates. That makes it important to always
find the best solution for the given conditions. Plants should be assessed
according to their qualities.