Europe is reviewing its stance on CRISPR crops

By Joan Conrow

April 30, 2021

The European Commission has released a study that could ease restrictions on gene editing and other new plant breeding technologies.

The 117-page study on new genomic techniques (NGT) finds that these tools have the potential to support agricultural sustainability and are compatible with the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. It also concluded that the EU’s current regulatory scheme for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — adopted in 2001 — is not suitable for assessing these innovative tools and must be adapted to scientific and technological progress.

“With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, Member States and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the EU,” said Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety, in a written statement.

The Commission plans to discuss the study with European Union ministers at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in May. Next steps include conducting an impact assessment and engaging in consultations with the public, governmental officials and others to explore policy options concerning how to regulate plants derived from NGTs.

Though the study suggests that the EU could be softening its rigid stance on crop biotechnology, it did raise red flags about possible environmental and safety effects, potential impacts on biodiversity, co-existence with organic agriculture and the challenges of labeling food products derived from these new crops.

The review comes in response to a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling that puts these new technologies in the same regulatory category as genetically modified organisms, whose use has been effectively stymied in Europe due to cumbersome and expensive regulations. European scientists denounced the ruling as “irresponsible” and the Danish Council of Ethics concluded it is unethical not to use biotechnology in the face of a worsening climate crisis and a rapidly growing global population.

The Commission’s top science panel also sharply rebuked both the ruling and Europe’s entire framework for regulating genetically modified organisms, noting the court decision could have broad consequences for international trade, food security in developing nations, European competitiveness and even the EU’s reputation.

Other countries, including the United States and Japan, have said they will not regulate gene edited crops like GMOs because they are essentially as safe as plants developed through traditional breeding methods. That trend that seems to be gaining traction around the world, due to both scientific findings and political concerns about uniform approaches to trade.

“There is significant interest both in the EU and globally for plant applications of NGTs,” according to Commission documents. “In addition, similar plants with similar risks can be obtained with conventional breeding and targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis. It may therefore not be justified to subject these products to the same regulatory requirements as conventional GMOs. This will be examined in the impact assessment.”

Reuters reported that German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner welcomed the prospect of an “overdue modernization” of the legal framework for gene-editing and agreed that it could support the sustainable production of food.

The study found that gene editing could facilitate the development of sustainable crops that can withstand climate change and resist diseases and other factors, such as saline soil. The crops also could be more nutritious and less reliant on pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs that have deleterious environmental impacts.

It further determined that NGTs could make Europe more competitive in the global economy and benefit many sectors of society. The study also identified challenges that are making it difficult for legislation to keep pace with scientific advances, thus hampering implementation of the law.

The study addresses only plants. The Commission said it will “continue to build up scientific knowledge”in regard to regulating animals and microorganisms developed through NGTs.

Image: A Serbian farmer transfers corn. Shutterstock/Marko Zamurovic