Horizon Europe to fund research on genome editing in agriculture

16 Feb 2021 | News

Its French co-inventor, Emmanuelle Charpentier won a Nobel prize last year. Now the European Commission says the EU should look to the ‘major advances’ CRISPR gene editing provides to boost yields and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture

Genome editing

Horizon Europe is to allocate €5 million for projects aimed at understanding the benefits and risks of genome editing technologies in agriculture over the next two years, according to a leaked draft work programme.

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Science|Business is publishing here all the draft Horizon Europe work programmes available to us. You can read them here. Or, if you have additional ones, you can send them to [email protected] (anonymously, if you wish.)

The move is in support of the ‘Farm to Fork’ plan to reduce the use of fertilisers by 30 per cent and turn 25 per cent of agricultural land over to organic farming. To reach these objectives, the Commission says the EU needs to “enable major advances in the life sciences and biotechnology, in new genomic techniques, such as gene/genome editing.”

Plans for the €5 million call come after EU agriculture ministers called on the Commission last October to enable the use of “new innovative ingredients and techniques” to boost sustainable food production, once they are shown to be safe for humans, animals and the environment. The headline figure for the call is only indicative, and the Commission could fund proposals that go beyond this figure.

Also last October, French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and her collaboration partner Jennifer Doudna, were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.”

But as things stand, precision breeding of plants with gene editing technologies cannot be used in the EU, following a 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which founds genome editing is subject to the 2001 EU directive banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In an early post-Brexit move, the UK last month launched an industry consultation on gene editing, as it seeks to move away from EU regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Depending on the outcome, there will be a second consultation on changing the definition of a GMO. The UK government view is that organisms produced by gene editing or by other genetic technologies, should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.

The proposed €5 million for genome editing research is a small part of a total of  €1.83 billion that is to be spent in 2021 and 2022 on Horizon Europe’s sixth cluster on food, bioeconomy natural resources, agriculture and environment, the draft work programme from December 2020 has revealed.

The European Commission is expected to publish the official work programmes with final funding figures and deadlines for application by the end of April. However, many research stakeholders have had access to draft versions of the documents posted online. Science|Business has published a trove of such documents, which offer researchers a detailed insight of how the €95.5 billion funding programme will be organised.

Call to lift gene editing ban

Research stakeholders have been calling on the EU to lift restrictions on genetically modified crops, to allow the use of genome editing, which need not involve the introduction of foreign genes. In 2020, in a report by the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, researchers in 120 institutions across Europe appealed to the Commission to help reverse the ECJ ruling.

According to the report, the policy change would help Europe develop more productive, climate-friendly, and resilient crops, and bring the EU up to date with recent scientific developments. “These new technologies may contribute to a reduction of the environmental footprint of agriculture,” the researchers said.

While agriculture ministers expect the Commission to complete a study of the status of novel genomic techniques under EU legislation by April, the Horizon call is still asking researchers to align their proposals with existing EU laws, including the infamous ECJ ruling of 2018.

Proposals are expected to advance “new genomic techniques in bio-based innovation” and to “assess potential critical impacts and bottlenecks with respect to the EU and international governance frameworks.”

Other priorities

According to the draft work programme, the Commission is planning to allocate €404 million over the next two years for research projects supporting its Farm to Fork strategy.

The Commission is also looking for proposals to explore the evolution and spread of microbiomes in the wild and their relationship with biodiversity loss and the growing risk of epidemics.

A €15 million call will be reserved for projects developing innovative digital tools tailored to the needs of small- and medium-sized farms. The Commission wants farmers to increase their uptake of digital technologies and prevent an increased digital divide between small and large farms.

The Commission is also planning to allocate €230 million over the next two years on projects addressing the EU’s push for a ‘circular economy’, by significantly reducing waste and promoting continuous recycling of natural resources.

The projects are expected to improve material selection and product design, but also to promote new value chains and business models focused on the upgrade, refurbishment and remanufacturing, of products to reduce waste.

Some calls will be dedicated to projects that seek to make EU’s industry more sustainable and reduce its dependence on resources, by lowering the use of primary non-renewable raw materials.

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