End of April 2021, the European Commission published a report on “new genomic techniques” which was awaited by developers of these biotechnologies, since it was expected to have major implications for their regulation in the European Union (EU). Furthermore, European regulation would affect the global marketing of these products depending on the closing or opening of the European market. However, far from proposing a strategy to end the European deadlock on these new biotechnologies, this report only announced further discussions. A first round of such discussions occurred end of May during a European Council of Agriculture Ministers, with no decision announced. The question one is founded to ask is whether it is possible for European countries to reap benefits of these genomic techniques within the EU ideological and political context…
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
New gene technologies hold promise in agriculture, industry and medicine, and the European Commission report recognizes this. In addition, the most popular among scientists of these technologies (“gene editing” techniques termed CRISPR-Cas) had its pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, awarded with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
It cannot have escaped the attention of the Europe Commission that the continent is trailing far behind the US and China in all applied areas of these technologies. It is also obvious that the EU regulation of “GMOs” (a legal concept, often denounced by scientists as having no scientific or technical rationality) has contributed to the backlash on these “GMOs”, consisting mainly of transgenic plants. There is at least one consensus in this dossier: if these “new genomic techniques” are regulated as “GMOs”, then it will not be possible to develop them for commercial purposes in Europe, and costly obstacles will have to be overcome before import will be authorized.
CJEU rules on its own
A previous European official report (in 2011) already stated that “The legislative framework as it operates today is not meeting needs or expectations, or its own objectives”. But nothing has been done to solve the problem at the EU political level. What happened was actually quite the opposite: the regulatory burden increased further, while leaving uncertainties about the future of new biotechnologies. Inevitably, when politicians are inactive, the power of judges increases, and this is what happened. In 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) concluded that a broad category of biotechnologies known as “mutagenesis:” “are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive”.
Since “new genomic techniques” often are “mutagenesis” techniques (they ‘surgically’ modify genetic traits), it means they fall within the scope of the EU “GMO” legislation. The current report by the European Commission was awaited to provide answers on how to overcome this major difficulty.
Rather negative reactions from the anti-biotech side confirm these new genomic techniques have scored points at the level of the European Commission. The pro-biotech side may be satisfied, in the short term, because this report explicitly recognizes that the products of new genomic techniques: “have the potential to contribute to the objectives of the EU’s Green Deal and in particular to the ‘farm to fork’ and biodiversity strategies and the United Nations’ sustainable development goals” (this Green Deal has the ambitious aim to make Europe “the first climate neutral” continent).
Farm to fork impossible to achieve without new technologies
Actually, the ‘farm to fork’ and biodiversity objectives, which have been bureaucratically decided (without consideration of their feasibility), may well be impossible to achieve without new technologies. Among them, it is precisely the biotechnologies, whether classical transgenesis or ‘gene genomic technologies’, which are blocked in Europe for ideological reasons.
This problem is not settled by this new report. Furthermore, the announced more high-level European discussions may not solve it either since the present balance of forces between Member States of the EU is apparently not in favor of biotechnologies, especially after the ‘Brexit’ of the United Kingdom (which is rather pro-biotech) and the rise of the German Greens (who confirmed their opposition to biotechnology).
It is likely that these discussions will go on for a while. During the European Council meeting in Brussels, on 26/27 May, Agriculture Ministers from Member States “held a debate on the conclusions of the Commission’s study on new genomic techniques and explored possible future policy actions”. The official summary of this debate is quite vague: “In general, they agreed with the findings of the study, notably the need to address legal uncertainty and to adapt the existing legislation to take into account scientific and technological progress”.
Furthermore, the debate in the European Parliament will likely be plagued by ideological views, as shown by the first comments of Green MEPs criticizing herbicide-tolerant crops, ignoring the fact that they can be used in soil conservation agricultural systems.
Why Europe is so reluctant ?
The reason Europe is often at the origin of restrictions regarding biotechnologies and other technologies has deeply embedded roots. Europe relies on its “Big Principles” (Democracy, Rule of Law, Human Rights, etc.) to avoid the repetition of the historical tragedies of the past (World Wars, genocides, etc.) and believes these “Big Principle” have been successful to do so on the continent. Similarly, following the same logic, to avoid technological tragedies, Europe has invented other “Big Principles”: the participation of ‘citizens’, the Precautionary Principle (at the top of the hierarchy of norms) and a restrictive set of environmental laws. In such a context, it is difficult to change the current trend in favour of a precautionary approach of new technologies.
It was thus unavoidable that these “Big Principles” found themselves at the center of the recent Commission’s report and it is unlikely that a majority of Member States will distance themselves from these views.
If some do so, it will be at a national level and this could well be a new step in a kind of European ‘deconstruction’. Actually, European GMO Directive (EU)2015/412 was already a first step in this direction in 2015. After 15 years of attempts for a common market and regulatory approach of biotechnology, the latter Directive offers “the possibility for the Member States to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their territory”, even when the said organisms have an authorization at the EU level. However, in line with the restrictive European ideology, this Directive does not offer the option of a national authorization without EU level-authorization.
It remains to be seen whether the United Kingdom will make it easier to test and commercialize some gene edited crops and livestock, as mentioned in some media. If post-Brexit UK reaps benefits of biotechnology in the future, while the EU is not and even misses its ‘farm to fork’ objectives, this would be a new demonstration of the deleterious nature of the currently dominant European ideology.
* this is not at official position
By Poudou99 – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80540703
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