US ag secretary rejects Europe’s gene editing ruling

By Joan Conrow

July 31, 2018

US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue criticized the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on gene editing, saying it’s based in “regressive and outdated regulations” and stymies innovation.

Perdue urged the European Union to seek more input from scientists, farmers and its trading partners “in determining the appropriate implementation of the ruling.”

He rejected the ruling because it “narrowly considers newer genome editing methods to be within the scope of the European Union’s regressive and outdated regulations governing genetically modified organisms.”

The decision effectively creates a de facto ban on cultivating gene-edited crops in Europe, as most member states have declared that GMOs are prohibited. Dr. Sarah Schmidt of the Institute for Molecular Physiology at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf said it delivered “the deathblow for plant biotech in Europe.”

The ruling is also expected to have serious implications for Africa, where various breeding programs are using editing tools like CRISPR to develop disease-resistant varieties of important food crops, such as cassava.

As Wired reported: “The EU is Africa’s largest single trading partner, receiving nearly $16 billion in agriculture and food imports in 2017 from Africa, according to the European Commission. That means African farmers hoping to sell to European markets might not be able to take advantage of gene-editing improvements.”

The ramifications were not lost on Perdue, who noted that “the global regulatory treatment of genome-edited agricultural products has strategic innovation and trade implications for US agriculture.”

The European Seed Association agreed, declaring the ruling “a watershed moment for the EU’s agri-food chain.” ESA Secretary General Garlich von Essen noted: “It is now likely that much of the potential of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe — with significant negative economic and environmental consequences. That strikes a serious blow to European agriculture and plant science.”

Farmers and scientists in New Zealand also criticized the ruling, saying it stifles innovation, fails to take new scientific knowledge into account and maintains a process of regulations based on technology, rather than outcomes.

Perdue said that “government policies should encourage scientific innovation without creating unnecessary barriers or unjustifiably stigmatizing new technologies.” For this reason, he said, the US Department of Agriculture “has clear science- and risk-based policies that enable needed innovation while continuing to ensure these products are safe.”

Perdue vowed the USDA “will re-double its efforts to work with partners globally towards science- and risk-based regulatory approaches.”

Dr. Kieran Elborough, general manager of science, new cultivar innovation at New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute, said it now will be interesting to see whether new, more detailed regulations emerge to restrict or enable gene editing technologies around the world.

Researchers have embraced gene editing because of its precision and speed. Perdue said editing tools like CRISPR hold tremendous promise. “For consumers, potential benefits include healthier, higher-quality foods at affordable prices. For farmers, they include improvements in productivity, plant and animal health, and environmental sustainability.”

But now, as von Essen observed, “while other parts of the world go ahead with these innovations without unnecessary overregulation, Europe’s breeders and farmers will once again lose out, without a chance to explore the huge potential and benefits of these plant breeding innovations in practice.’’