A new report by the Breakthrough Institute and the Alliance for Science has uncovered the huge economic costs of the European Union’s restrictive regulations on new genomic techniques (NGTs).
Entitled “The €3 Trillion Cost of Saying No: How the EU Risks Falling Behind in the Bioeconomy Revolution,” the report examines how outdated EU laws, especially a 2001 regulatory framework that currently classifies gene-edited crops as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are choking off new sources of economic growth, employment, and environmental sustainability in Europe and beyond.
The report examines the potential growth New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) could bring to agriculture, materials, chemicals, energy, and human health sectors. It estimates the potential economic benefits of NGT use from 2020 to 2040. It notes that not adopting NGTs could result in an annual economic opportunity cost of 182 to 356 billion dollars for the EU. The report further projects that this could compound to over 3.2 trillion dollars over a decade.
Need for synthetic fertilizers
The report notes biotechnology’s potential for increasing crop yields, crop stress tolerance (an increasingly important area of research in the era of climate change), reduction in the need for synthetic fertilizers, reduction in food waste, and improved livestock disease resistance.
The EU’s restrictive laws have prevented the European Union from taking advantage of any of these breakthroughs, even though the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated that NGTs do not introduce new safety risks compared to conventional breeding and established genomic techniques.
Dr Emma Kovak, Senior Food and Agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, said: “The EU is falling further behind as countries worldwide continue to pass new regulations that support gene editing technologies, which are a vital part of bio-economy growth. In saying no to scientific innovation, the EU misses out on many benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and food production.”
Cumbersome assessment process
While the report acknowledges the European Commission’s July 2023 proposals to update NGT regulations, it notes the fierce opposition these proposals have generated, especially from the green NGOs and political parties.
Using the example of Impossible Foods, the makers of the famous plant-based Impossible Burger, widely consumed in the United States, the report notes that the EU’s cumbersome assessment process has prevented Impossible Foods from selling its products in the EU.
As the report states: “Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin is produced via precision fermentation in genetically modified yeast in an industrial setting. Because Impossible Foods’ final product contains host proteins, it is regulated under EC 1829/2003 legislation on GMOs, meaning that even if the European Food Safety Authority assessment is positive, the decision goes to the European Commission and member states, of which a 55 percent majority must vote to approve the product.
Overly precautionary approach
“The company submitted its dossier for regulatory approval to place the product on the market in October 2019, and the dossier was not validated until late December 2021, after which the process was immediately paused to request more information and remains on hold at the time of writing (July 2023), with the pause expected to last until the end of 2023. Approval is an unlikely prospect, and refusal to approve this more sustainable plant-based product would have a chilling effect on the entire sector, which is impossible to quantify but very real.”
The impact of the EU’s regulations does not stop at the borders of the European Union. “This report details the high cost of saying no to scientific innovations. It is also important to consider the impact of the EU’s regulatory decision-making on the Global South, where an overly precautionary approach can hamper efforts to tackle food insecurity and reduce poverty,” said Dr Sheila Ochugboju, director of the Alliance for Science.
The bio-economy revolution is taking off
The report notes a 2018 Court of Justice of the European Union decision that subjects organisms modified using NGTs to the EU’s 2001 GMO legislation, a regulation established before precise gene-editing methods like CRISPR. The report highlights the scientific community’s concerns regarding the EU’s stance on NGTs, especially in light of global advancements in bio-economy.
“The bio-economy revolution is taking off worldwide, driven by new genomic techniques (NGTs) which enable the precise gene editing of plants, animals, and micro-organisms. This delivers better crops, pharmaceuticals, plant-based proteins, and much more, yielding substantial added value to the global economy. The EU is already getting left behind. Legacy anti-GMO regulations dating back to 2001 are currently applied to gene-edited crops, forcing genetics startups to move abroad and leaving the worldwide bio-economy revolution moribund in Europe,” the report states.
“To address this, the European Commission made proposals in July 2023 to update the regulation of NGTs more in keeping with scientific progress. While we view these proposals as insufficiently ambitious, we acknowledge that they move in the right direction. However, many NGOs, political parties, and member states oppose them outright, seeking to prevent any widespread use of NGTs in Europe. If they succeed in blocking progress on NGTs, Europe will have no bio-economy revolution,” it adds.