With fertiliser shortages, drought and declining soil fertility threatening agricultural production in Europe, there is increased pressure to relax EU rules on the use of genome editing in plant breeding
EU agriculture ministers turned up the pressure for a relaxation of the rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to allow the use of genome editing in crop plants at an EU Council meeting last Friday.
The ministers largely agreed the use of new precision techniques that make it easier and faster to modify a plant’s own DNA could strengthen the EU’s food sector and increase its resilience in the face of climate and geopolitical crises.
According to an EU source, 20 member states are in favour, while six countries highlighted the need to maintain a precautionary approach. Conscious of the previous outcry against genetically modified organisms, six agriculture ministers pointed to the necessity of providing adequate information to the public.
Unlike first generation GMOs, genome editing does not require the addition of transgenes from other species as a marker that the desired genetic modification has taken place.
Despite this, in 2018 the EU Court of Justice ruled that genome editing methods such as the Nobel prize winning Crispr-Cas9 fall under the 2001 EU legislation regulating GMOs, even though there is far greater precision and no need for marker genes
This has resulted in near paralysis for the sector, with a marked reduction in research EU companies, mostly SMEs, and their relocation to the US or other non-European markets.
But now, in the face of the current crises, the need to improve the competitiveness of EU agriculture and to ensure the free trade of agrifood products worldwide, is a new priority. "It may be time to rethink some traditional approaches to food production in favour of new modern techniques," Czech agriculture minister Zdeněk Nekula told the Council meeting.
The position of member states matters because the Commission is currently working to rewrite the legal framework. A report it published in April, concluded the 2001 GMO legislation is no longer appropriate given the ability of Crispr and related techniques to introduce desirable traits without the need for foreign genes. On the back of this, the Commission launched a public consultation to seek views on how to move forward.
That closed in July 2022, and the Commission is currently conducting an impact assessment. It is due to publish a legislative proposal in the second quarter of 2023, according to EU officials.
Post-Brexit, in September 2021, the UK formally announced it will relax rules regulating research on genetically engineered crops, raising hopes among scientists that the EU could do the same.
One of leading advantages foreseen for genome editing of crop plants is a reduction in the need for pesticides.
Faced with loss of diversity, Europe needs to avoid dependence on pesticides and fertilisers and at the same time introduce traits such as salt or drought tolerance, or that increase the nutritional value of plants, make affordable food more affordable and its cultivation more sustainable.
Oana Dima, science policy manager at VIB-Ghent University Centre and who is coordinator of the EU-SAGE network of 134 plant research institutes and societies that have joined forces to provide information about genome editing and promote the development of policies to underpin the use of genome editing for sustainable agriculture and food production, said gene editing to modify a plant’s own DNA is an important tool.
It would also support a major objective of the EU Farm to Fork strategy, which aims to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by a 50% by 2030.
In some senses, genome editing can be seen as equivalent to traditional techniques in which plants are cross bred to introduce desirable traits. However, it has the significant advantage of being far more targeted and faster.
“Make breeding more efficient from the point of view of time, but also more targeted, so you can address challenges in a more specific way […] it is possible to deliver better varieties in a shorter period of time," said Petra Jorasch, manager of plant breeding innovation advocacy at Euroseeds, a trade association representing seed companies.
Compared to conventional breeding techniques, "which might take ten years”, with these new breeding techniques, “the process could take a couple of weeks," said Roman Hobza, senior researcher at the Czech Institute of Experimental Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences, which contributed to the agriculture minister’s meeting.
As one example of the significance of this, “If you have troubles with a disease, you can quickly make the plant resistant for the next season," Hobza said.
While there is support from stakeholders for the Commission's initiative, there are calls for the process to be sped up.
"This is very urgent. The Commission should try to be fast and act as early as possible," said Jorasch.
Before it can be adopted, the proposal due in 2023 will need to be discussed and agreed on by the Council and Parliament.
"If the Commission comes up with a proposal at the end of the second quarter of 2023, there wouldn't be enough time. Everything would be delayed again by one or two years before a new Commission and the new Parliament start discussing," Jorasch said.
Hobza is skeptical. "If they do it, this is super. But as we have talked about these changes for years, I am not very optimistic."