Starting gun fired on new battle over genetically engineered crops

03 May 2022 | News

Commission appears keen on allowing crops created with newer, more precise editing techniques. But it will face stiff opposition from environmental groups and Green MEPs

The European Commission has opened a public consultation on allowing genome editing techniques in agriculture, paving the way for a revived political fight over one of the most controversial scientific issues in the bloc.

The EU has long maintained a near-ban on first generation genetically modified organisms, which controversially is now heavily restricting work with newer, more refined gene editing methods that do not involve the insertion of transgenes from other species.

But the need to make crops more climate resilient, keep European agribusiness competitive and maintain food security in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed the issue back up the political agenda.

“Plants obtained with new genomic techniques (NGTs) could help build a more resilient and sustainable agri-food system,” said health and food safety commissioner Stella Kyriakides announcing the consultation, which opened on 29 April. “Our guiding principle will remain the safety of the environment and of consumers.”

The consultation focuses on targeted mutagenesis and cis-genesis, genetic editing techniques which accelerate changes that are achievable through traditional breeding.

In a new factsheet about these methods, the Commission is strikingly positive, explaining they could be used to develop drought tolerance rice, high protein wheat, and fungus resistant tomatoes.

Kyriakides is not the only senior Commission figure to make positive noises about liberalising genetic engineering rules. Last November, vice president Frans Timmermans said the EU should “properly explore their potential” and that initial results are “very promising.”

“I see the Commission as the main driver for deregulation,” said Heike Moldenhauer, secretary general of the European non-GMO Industry Association, who worries that liberalising the rules will make it near impossible for their food producers to keep genetically modified produce out of their supply chains. 

Last year, the Commission published a study that concluded there were “strong indications” the existing, highly restrictive legislation, which was introduced in 2001, is “not fit for purpose”. It aims to draw a line under that by focussing the consultation on what it defines as new genomic techniques that have been developed since 2001, including Crispr, the technology that has revolutionised genome editing.

Wake-up call

This report followed a landmark 2018 judgment by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that despite much greater precision and with no need for marker genes to show the desired modification had taken place, new genome editing techniques should fall into the same strict regulatory framework as first generation genetically modified organisms.

This ruling was a “wake-up call to the authorities that the current genetic modification legislation was not fit for purpose,” said Claire Gray, a senior policy officer at the League of European Research Universities.

Climate change has also spurred a push to loosen restrictions, with the hope that NGTs can create crops that will better survive on a warming planet.

The EU is one of the strictest jurisdictions in the world when it comes to researching and growing engineered crops, so there are also worries that the position is hurting European innovation. The UK government has said it wants to use Brexit to relax its own laws on genetically edited crops

And disruption to the grain trade caused by the war in Ukraine has also focused minds on food security. “All options for securing food supply are needed,” said Gray.

The Commission will adopt a proposal for a new legal framework for NGTs in the second quarter of 2023 – likely triggering a political battle between member states, MEPs, industry lobbyists, NGOs and researchers over deregulation.

It is likely to have the backing of many scientists and universities, who have long argued the claimed risks of genetic modification lack evidence.

“From the perspective of our universities, it would be helpful if restrictions are relaxed, with a focus on doing basic research in a safe 'sandbox' environment,” said Gray. “New insights can be gained more quickly and this may ultimately contribute to better products, by traditional or novel technologies.”

In favour of deregulation

As for member states, the Netherlands is likely to be favourable towards deregulation, said Moldenhauer, given its sizable agriculture industry. Science|Business has asked the Dutch government for its position. Spain could also be favourable, having long grown genetically modified maize, Moldenhauer noted.

Germany’s position is more complex, as the new government in Berlin contains both the Green Party, which has traditionally opposed genetic engineering, and the free-market Free Democratic Party, which is more likely to favour deregulation. The Greens control the environment and agricultural ministries, but the Free Democrats research.

The agreement underpinning the coalition does not explicitly mention genetic engineering, but it does commit to conduct research “in all areas of application of biotechnological processes and use the results.”

As for the European parliament, it is “difficult to say” whether there will be enough MEPs to block deregulation, said Tilly Metz, a Luxembourg Green MEP who opposes liberalisation.

“On traditional GMOs, the Parliament has been quite united [against],” she said.

But there has been “effective lobbying” in favour of newer techniques. Metz said she fears that “many of my colleagues have fallen for this narrative. On amendments on this subject, we have seen close majorities, going both ways.”

The Greens/EFA group, which represents around 70 MEPs, “will continue to oppose any deregulation of GMOs, no matter which generation of GMOs we are talking about,” said Metz. The group argues that the risks of new GMO crops are still unknown, and fears the concentration of power into the hands of a few agribusinesses that control patents to modified seeds.

But even the Greens are not completely united against a change in the law. In 2020, a group of influential German Greens, including the MEP Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, signed a paper that argued existing regulations no longer reflected scientific reality,  and that organic farming could damage biodiversity just as much as genetically engineered crops.

Meanwhile, last December the Renew Europe group of around 100 MEPs put out a position paper arguing in favour of new “proportionate” regulation for NGTs, which could play an “important role” in meeting green objectives.

Moldenhauer thinks that MEPs could be split evenly on deregulation. “I’m not sure what the result would be,” she said.

Into this debate will play public opinion. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey on the issue from 2019, 27% of the European public are concerned about “genetically modified ingredients in food or drinks”, although this was a lower level of concern that for most other issues polled, like pesticide residue or additives.

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