As the European Parliament prepares for a key vote on gene editing regulations next week, an open letter signed by 35 Nobel laureates and more than 1,000 European scientists has been sent to parliamentarians asking them to ‘reject the darkness of anti-science fearmongering’.
On 24 January the European Parliament’s environment committee is due to vote on whether or not the EU should relax restrictive regulation which is holding back the use of so-called ‘new genomic techniques’ (NGTs) in Europe. The European Commission has proposed a new system to allow scientists to continue progress on crop breeding using CRISPR and other NGTs without falling foul of existing highly restrictive GMO regulations.
In October last year, the Breakthrough Institute and the Alliance for Science released a report warning that a de-facto ban on precision gene editing in Europe could have economic costs totaling over 3 trillion euros over the next decade. The new open letter argues that the use of CRISPR in plant breeding has the potential to dramatically reduce pesticide and fertilizer use in agriculture while increasing food security through the creation of climate-resilient plant varieties.
The letter is signed by the co-inventors of the CRISPR technology, biochemist Emmanuelle Charpentier, and microbiologist Jennifer Doudna, who shared the 2020 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work. Alongside other signatories including world-renowned authors Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, they write: “NGTs hold immense promise for sustainable agriculture, enhanced food security and innovative medical solutions. We, therefore, encourage you to engage with the overwhelming majority of farmers and genuine experts, not with reactive anti-science lobbyists in the Brussels bubble. We implore you to vote in favor of NGTs.”
The signatories note that “conventional breeding for climate resilient crops (with cross-breeding of certain traits, subsequent selection and then backcrossing to remove undesirable traits) is too time-consuming. It takes years, decades even. We do not have this time in an era of climate emergency. This is why fast, targeted, and favorable breeding methods must be added to the plant breeder’s toolbox. The responsible use of NGTs that the legislation could unlock may contribute significantly to our collective pursuit of a more resilient, environmentally conscious, and food-secure future.”
The open letter was organized by WePlanet, an environmental non-profit network that campaigns to defend science around the world to help combat climate change and end poverty. Dr Hidde Boersma, the Dutch microbiologist who coordinated the letter with WePlanet, says: “The NGTs vote is a huge moment for the European Parliament. Will they embrace rationality and optimism, or cave into the anti-science fearmongering of an ill-informed minority? Now, more than ever, it’s time to embrace the optimism that Europe’s young scientists and farmers represent.”
All eyes are now on the ENVI committee vote scheduled for 24 January. If the committee passes the proposal, this is expected to be followed on 5 February by a plenary vote in the Strasbourg Parliament. Tens of activists from the international WePlanet network – including young scientists and farmers – are expected to demonstrate outside the parliament building that day in favor of NGTs.
The open letter is open to further signatures from scientists, researchers, and other relevant stakeholders. More than 1,000 have already signed; the link to add your signature is here.
Mark Lynas is a climate change author and campaigner. He is an advisor to the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. He is the research and climate lead with the Alliance for Science, where he has co-authored peer-reviewed papers on vaccines, climate, and GMOs focusing on scientific consensus and misinformation.