01 Aug 2019   |   News

Pressure increases for ECJ rule banning use of genome editing in agriculture to be reversed

Europe could lose its competitive edge in sustainable food production if the EU does not rethink its rule on genome editing crop plants. Researchers across the EU issue a fresh call for the ban to be lifted

Research institutes from across Europe are calling on the European Parliament and the European Commission to rethink the EU’s stance on genome editing of crop plants, to enable Europe to compete in sustainable food production and keep up with the speeding pace of innovation in agriculture.

They want to reverse the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that modern precision genome editing - which does not rely on introducing DNA from other species - is nevertheless subject to the 2001 directive banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In a statement last week marking one year since the ECJ decision, researchers at 120 institutes around Europe said the EU’s ban “no longer correctly reflects the current state of scientific knowledge.”  Scientists should be allowed to use precision genome editing, such as CRISPR/Cas, which is, in effect, a speeded-up equivalent of traditional breeding techniques.

New EU legislation is needed to enable farmers to use this new technology, to produce higher yields while decreasing the use of chemicals and water, the researchers say.

Dirk Inzé, science director of the Centre for Plant Systems Biology at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology in Gent, says the call for legislative change is supported by research institutions across Europe. “Our endeavour is supported by most of the agricultural ministries across EU countries. It is necessary to move to the level of the European Parliament now,” said Inzé.

“This is one of the rare examples in which the scientific community across the entire EU has united and unanimously calls for a revision of the European legislation affecting genome editing,” said Inzé.

In 2018, the European Commission’s group of chief scientific advisers also recommended the EU should revise its GM legislation “to reflect current knowledge and scientific evidence.” The advisers warned that “unless the EU improves the regulatory environment for products of gene-editing, it will be left behind in this field.”

There are also questions about whether the EU can police the rule, because unlike GMOs that contain foreign DNA, plants and animals modified using CRISPR contain only DNA that occurs naturally.

The problem was acknowledged in March, when a report from the European Network of GMO Laboratories concluded the analytical methods they use to detect conventional GMOs cannot be applied to genome edited products.

Central European scientists weigh in

Leading scientists in central Europe are throwing their weight behind the campaign for new legislation.  

Directors of research institutes of the Czech Academy of Sciences and other representatives of leading Czech scientific institutions and universities joined counterparts across Europe to call on the European Parliament and the European Commission to overturn the ECJ ruling.

According to Czech scientists, using CRISPR to modify plants to cope with higher temperatures and drought can help in dealing with climate change. Genome editing can improve the nutritional content of food, contribute to food safety, increase yields and promote sustainability in agriculture. The ban is holding back innovation in Europe in a critical area of research.

“Plant breeding may contribute significantly to new crop varieties that are less susceptible to pathogens and more resilient to drought,” said Karel Říha, deputy science director at CEITEC Masaryk University, which specialises in plant genetics.

“This will enable farmers to produce high yields, while decreasing the use of chemicals and water,” Říha said.

The US, China, Japan, Brazil and Australia deem gene edited foods as safe. Scientists warn Europe could lose its competitive edge if the ECJ ruling is not overturned, as cutting-edge research in gene editing for agriculture would be pushed outside Europe.

“Whereas there are more and more countries in the world that enable such new technologies, Europe, on the contrary, remains rigid,” said Ivo Frébort director of the Centre of Biotechnological and Agricultural Research.   

“Month by month, the gap between Europe and progressive countries grows bigger, which may have a negative impact on agriculture, production, the quality of groceries, and the whole environment in Europe,” Frébort said.

Political backing

Last week, the Czech minister for agriculture Miroslav Toman said his country “supports these new methods,” provided the outputs of this form of plant and animal breeding is not subject to patents. “The reason for this is to protect new Czech small and middle breeding companies, as well as the breeders, so that they are able to continue using breeding material during the creation of new plant varieties,” said Toman.

In his first day in office, new UK prime minister Boris Johnson promised to liberate UK bioscience from EU rules on genetically modified crops, if and when the UK leaves the EU.

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