Scientists and industry cheer outcome of Commission study on gene editing

Study paves the way to update EU legislation and allow gene editing in agriculture. But environmentalists and organic farmers say modified crop plants should continue to be labelled as GMOs

Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety. Photo: European Commission

Genomics researchers and the agriculture industry have welcomed the publication of a long-awaited report recommending EU legislation on genetically modified organisms be updated to allow the use targeted gene editing in crops.

In the study, the European Commission acknowledges the potential of gene editing and notes most research into commercial applications is taking place outside the EU.

The Commission carried out the study at the request of member states, to assess if gene editing can be used safely for agriculture, industrial and pharmaceutical applications. The report is based on expert opinions from the Commission’s in house science and policy advice services, the Joint Research Centre and the Scientific Advise Mechanism, and contributions from member states and stakeholders.

Precision breeding of plants through gene editing is banned in the EU following a 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice, which found these techniques are subject to the 2001 EU directive banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“The GMO directive is not up to date with new technologies. Finally, we are happy to see that the Commission comes to similar conclusions,” Petra Jorasch, manager of plant breeding innovation at the industry group Euroseeds told Science|Business.

Oana Dima, science policy manager at EU-SAGE, a group of scientists from 134 European plant science institutes and societies agreed, saying, “We are happy that the Commission sees that the current regulatory framework has negative implications for research in Europe.”

Researchers and the agriculture industry are calling for an update to the GMO legislation so that crops developed by modern plant breeding techniques that do not involve the introduction of genes from other species are excluded. Gene editing using Crispr-Cas9 and related techniques can improve plant characteristics without introducing foreign DNA.

According to the report, technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 can help the EU make food production more sustainable, with new plants that are more resistant to diseases and harsher environmental conditions and which do not require the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

The EU has a grand plan to make the continent carbon neutral by 2050 and sustainable agriculture is a big part of this. The Commission’s farm to fork strategy aims to reduce the use of fertilisers by 30% and turn 25% of agricultural land over to organic farming. The Horizon Europe research programme will fund projects to improve soil health and reduce the use of pesticides and antibiotics in agriculture.

“New genomic techniques can promote the sustainability of agricultural production, in line with the objectives of our farm to fork strategy,” said Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety.

The biotech industry has warned before that the current GMO legislation is way behind the times and hitting Europe’s global competitiveness in food production. “It’s time for a change that ensures innovation leadership to market, not just in the lab,” said Claire Skentelbery, director general of industry group EuropaBio.

Argentina changed its laws to allow genome editing in crops in 2015. Other countries, such as US, Canada, Australia and Japan, soon followed suit. The debate is ongoing in the UK, Russia, China, India and South Africa. The EU remains the only major region in the world where genome edited crops are regulated as GMOs.

Legal proposal

The Commission will present the results to the EU council next week and member states are likely to come up with a position in the coming weeks. They will then consult the European Parliament and should set out a legal proposal later this year. “Any kind of legal proposal would need support from parliament and council,” said Jorasch.

The EU27 largely agree the current legislation is not fit for purpose but have yet to agree on a common approach to gene editing. Jorasch said the negotiations will be difficult because the decision in member states could fall between agriculture and environment ministries. “There is still need for further discussion,” she said. “Ministers of agriculture are more likely to be supportive, whereas minsters of environment are more critical.”

As one case in point, last week Germany’s environment minister Svenja Schulze said the current EU law on GMOs should continue to be applied to gene editing, so that products continue to be tested and labelled for risk. However, Germany’s agriculture minister Julia Klöckner said the Commission’s report signals the need for an, “overdue modernisation” of EU GMO legislation.

In addition to potential hurdles in some member states, organic food producers are opposed to any changes to the GMO legislation, arguing the benefits of gene editing are hypothetical and achievable by other means.

Organic farmers’ associations say novel genomic techniques should be treated with caution and warn that allowing gene editing in agriculture would undermine the farm to fork strategy. “A weakening of the rules on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food is worrying news and could leave organic food systems unprotected,” said Jan Plagge, president IFOAM Europe, an international association of organic farmers.

The environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth warns food products based on gene editing would not be labelled as GMOs on shelves and new legislation could exempt a new generation of genetically-modified crops from safety checks.

However, Dima said organic farmers and conventional farmers could both thrive under a new legal framework. “I think there is some common ground, in view of what we want to achieve,” she said. “We need to find a way to ensure coexistence.”

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