European researchers demand science-based policy on gene editing

By Joan Conrow

December 4, 2018

Leading European scientists have united around an urgent call urging European policy makers to safeguard gene editing and other innovations in plant science and agriculture.

Scientists representing 93 European plant and life sciences research centers and institutes have endorsed a position paper that was prompted by a July 25 European Court of Justice ruling. The ruling calls for subjecting precision breeding techniques like genome editing to the same outdated regulatory scheme that governs transgenic organisms (GMOs).

“We find the ruling irresponsible in the face of the world’s current far-reaching agricultural challenges,” the position paper states.

Those endorsing the position paper — titled “Regulating genome edited organisms as GMOs has negative consequences for agriculture, society and economy” — are concerned the ruling will lead to “a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding. As a result, European farmers might be deprived of a new generation of more climate resilient and more nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to current ecological and societal challenges.”

“This statement is proof of a solid consensus among the academic life science research community in Europe on the negative consequences of this ruling,” according to a press release from the scientists. “The impacts on our society and economy will be enormous.”

The court ruling has already been criticized by the European Union’s own top science panel, the United State Department of Agriculture, seed breeders in the Netherlands and 13 nations that used the World Trade Organization to present a position paper supporting policies that advance agricultural innovation. The ruling is also in contrast with the opinion of the Advocate-General of the Court, which was published in January 2018.

Like the European scientists who signed the position paper, critics agree the court ruling will stymie research, hamper global trade, reduce the EU’s competitiveness, delay the development of climate-smart crops, hinder progress in sustainable agriculture and create a regulatory nightmare. Instead, they are calling for the adoption of modern, science-based policies around gene editing.

“Time is a luxury we don’t have,” the paper states. “Reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and adapting farming to a changing climate are imperative. For example, crops that are more tolerant to rapidly changing and harsher environments will be crucial for the success of tomorrow’s food production approaches. One of the latest breakthroughs in this field is precision breeding, an innovative crop breeding method based on genome editing.”

The scientists argued that precision breeding is more accurate and at least as safe as classical breeding methods. And it differs from transgenics (GMOs) because no DNA from non-related species is present in the final crop.

“From a scientific point of view, the ruling makes no sense,” the paper states. “Therefore, we call upon all European authorities to quickly respond to this ruling and alter the legislation such that organisms containing such edits are not subject to the provisions of the GMO Directive but instead fall under the regulatory regime that applies to classically bred varieties.”

The scientists also joined the EU’s own science panel in urging policy-makers to revisit the EU’s GMO Directive to “correctly reflect scientific progress in biotechnology.”

The paper claims that “the strict legislation will make precision breeding hyper-expensive and, by consequence, a privilege of just a few large multinational companies. As such, European farmers will miss out on a new generation of hardier and more nutritious crop varieties that are urgently needed to respond to the results of climate change.

“In other words, Europe is pushing technology back into the hands of the big market players. This is in huge contrast with countries that have adopted more flexible regulations. In such countries, universities, government institutions and small companies are poised to lead the precision-breeding revolution in agriculture.”

The paper contends the ruling jeopardizes the innovative start-ups, corporate partnerships and small seed-breeding companies that have given Europe a “leading position in terms of innovative agricultural research.” Additionally, the continent risks a “brain drain” if scientists leave Europe for better research opportunities abroad.

“The support we received for this initiative from plant scientists all over Europe has been overwhelming from the start,” said Dirk Inzé, scientific director at VIB in Belgium and one of the initiators of the paper. “To me, it clearly illustrates the current dichotomy in Europe: as European leaders in the field of plant scientists we are committed to bringing innovative and sustainable solutions to agriculture, but we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence. With this statement we hope to promote evidence-informed policymaking in the EU, which is of crucial importance to us all.”

Those wishing to sign on to the paper can do so here.