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European Parliament panel discusses regulation of genome editing for crops

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On the 15th of April, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) held a workshop on ‘The challenges of genome editing in plants, with a focus on crops’ hosted by STOA member Herbert Dorfmann and his fellow MEP Andrius Kubilius. You can watch a recording of the event here, but if you’re stuck for time we have put together the key takeaways below.

Genome editing techniques have progressed considerably over the last decade, reinvigorating the debate on their research and commercial uses. For agricultural purposes, these techniques are currently governed under the same rules as conventional GM crops, following a 2018 CJEU decision that continues to stimulate much debate. The European Commission has conducted two separate consultations with both its member states and stakeholder organisations on this topic, with the latter feeding into a soon to be published study on new genomic techniques from DG SANTE.

The STOA workshop aimed to assess scientists’ position regarding these novel techniques and the risks and benefits of their application in European agriculture. As mentioned by Professor Virginijus Šikšnys, Chief Scientist and Head of the Department of Protein-DNA Interactions at Vilnius University, in his presentation, global demand for agricultural products could increase by at least by 100% over the next 20 years. Therefore, feeding the population while addressing concerns such as climate change, land and water use, and biodiversity loss should be a primary concern.

In this context, advocates of biotechnological innovation put forward that a less stringent regulation could enable the development of products that use less water and soil, allow reforestation, and reduce the use of chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides. To put it in the words of Emeritus Professor Julian Kinderlerer (European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies) “We have limited land available for agriculture and we should carefully consider the growing demand for fuel, food and fibre while safeguarding biodiversity and protecting the environment”.

Dr Piet van der Meer, Guest Professor at Ghent University and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), underlined the fact that plants obtained through breeding techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be indistinguishable from those obtained via traditional breeding: “The mere use of a technique can’t make a product a GMO, particularly if it’s identical to another one which is labelled as “non-GMO”. For the same reason, it could be practically impossible to ban genome-edited foreign products from the EU market.

Moreover, the argument that the current regulatory burden to obtain the approval for genome-edited products is too expensive, benefitting only large companies in terms of research and patents, was also presented by more than one speaker at the meeting, including Mr Bjørn Bedsted, Deputy Director of the Danish Board of Technology Foundation. Similarly, large corporations hold the vast majority of authorisations for “traditional” agricultural GM products in the EU precisely because of the costs and risks associated with the length of approval procedures.

Ms Heike Moldenhauer, Secretary-General of the European Non-GMO Industry Association (ENGA) argued that the fact that two products are indistinguishable does not mean that they are identical from a metabolic and biological point of view. Citing the precautionary principle and potential downsides to quick assessments of the safe use of a product, she underlined that “genome editing sceptics” oppose the introduction of rapid approval protocols. Ms Moldenhauer added that EU citizens generally don’t have a positive perception of genetically engineered products due to several factors including a general lack of trust in industry and science.

The public debate on this topic is highly polarised. On the one hand, opponents or sceptics see any attempt to change the current regulation as a concession to the interests of multinationals in the agricultural sector. On the other hand, those in favour look to countries where the application of less restrictive rules appears to have benefited small and medium-sized enterprises. However, the political debate must also take into account social and ethical factors alongside scientific facts, adopting a broader and longer-term vision.