EU report supports changes in legislation with the potential to allow gene editing in agriculture (1). However, the debate is ongoing, and organic farmers want to continue to label products as GMOs to ensure safety checks are done.
The European Commission just published a report looking at the usefulness of gene editing techniques in research, industry, agriculture and pharmaceutical applications. This work relies on contributions from experts and policy advisers from the European Commission, the Scientific Advise Mechanism and the Joint Research Centre.
The use of precision breeding techniques in plants has been banned in the EU since 2018 when the European Court of Justice found these methods should be subject to the 2001 EU directive banning genetically modified organisms.
Since then, researchers have been calling for an update on GMO legislation to allow the use of crops developed by modern breeding techniques that don’t rely on genes from other species. According to the report, gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR – which can improve plant characteristics without the need to introduce foreign DNA – can make food production more sustainable. Research is critical to developing plants that don’t need large amounts of fertilisers or are able to survive in poor soil.
Many researchers have welcomed this report. “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.
The EU has a master plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, and sustainable agriculture supported by research is key to achieve this goal. The aim is to reduce fertilisers by 30% and convert 25% of land to organic farming. With this in mind, the Horizon Europe research programme is going to favour projects to reduce the use of pesticides and to improve soil health.
Other countries, such as the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, already allow genome editing in crops. The EU remains the only major region where precision breeding techniques in plants remain classed as GMOs.
The debate is still ongoing amongst its 27 members, who are yet to agree on a common approach for gene editing. One example comes from Germany, where the Minister of the Environment, Svenja Schulze defends that the current legislation should continue to ensure products are tested and labelled as GMOs, whereas the Minister for Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, says modernisation is badly needed.
To complicate the debate further, organic food producers are fundamentally opposed to any changes in legislation, arguing the benefits of gene editing can be obtained using alternative techniques. “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. They’re apprehensive that if products based on gene editing techniques are not labelled as GMO, they would be able to escape vital safety checks.
With the help of this report, the Commission is going to move forward with an impact assessment and a public consultation. The aim is to develop adequate legislation, allowing both a high level of protection for humans and the environment, as well as reap the benefits from research and innovation using these techniques.
(1) European Commission 2021. EC study on new genomic techniques, viewed 17th May 2021, <https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/gmo/modern_biotech/new-genomic-techniques_en>