The Long Shadow of the European Ruling on New Breeding Technologies
Posted 1st August 2018 by Jane Williams
Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that gene-edited crops are equivalent to transgenic GMOs. The court ruling came as a surprise because it negates a preliminary opinion that was issued by the court’s Advocate General Michael Bobek in January 2018. This reactionary ECJ ruling might become the final nail in the coffin of the European Agbiotech sector and many scientists, including myself, are concerned that it will discourage the use of genome editing in agriculture.
With their decision, the judges followed the twisted logic of the EU GMO directive 2001/18/EC. This directive defines a GMO as “an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. This includes genome editing techniques such as CRISPR, chromosome doubling, transformation, transgenesis, and chemical, or ionisation, mutagenesis. All of these techniques are used by plant breeders to increase genetic diversity, to introduce new crop traits and to accelerate the breeding process.
Then comes the wrench: some of these breeding techniques will be subject to strict regulation, whereas other techniques will not. With the court’s ruling, a new herbicide-resistant crop that has been produced by gene-editing will be subject to intense scrutiny for its risks to the environment and human and animal health. So, while this might be what the environmental organisations campaigned for, a herbicide resistant crop produced by other breeding techniques, such as chemical mutagenesis, which could also have serious health or environmental impacts, will be exempt from regulation and can be used freely. Is this really adequate protection of consumers and the environment?
In essence, this ruling is a blessing for big agricultural companies. Obtaining approval for GM crops comes with a huge price tag. According to a 2011 survey, the costs for fulfilling regulatory science and administration amount to $35 million. No academic research groups, no start-up company and no family-owned breeding company can stem such a sum. By extending those costs to crops that have been created by gene techniques, this prevents academics and start-up companies from seeking innovative ways to tackle hunger and climate change. The most prestigious research grant that a scientist in the EU can receive amounts to 2.5 million Euros for five years. To put it bluntly, the ECJ ruling effectively eliminates any competition for big agri-businesses from smaller players.
Sadly, the consequences of the ruling will be felt beyond Europe. It is likely that many African countries will follow the restrictive EU legislation out of economic pressure because the EU is Africa’s largest trading partner. Ultimately, African farmers who want to sell to European markets will be forced to comply with EU rules.
Africa is just beginning to see the deployment of genome-editing to speed up crop breeding. Improving local staple crops and adapting them to climate change is vital to secure food supply for smaller farmers in Africa. In many sub-Saharan Africa countries, orphan crops like cassava, pearl millet, and cooking bananas that are difficult to breed provide the majority of the population’s calorie intake.
Typically, these kind of orphan crops are difficult to breed and are not targeted for improvement by big agri-businesses. Yet, many humanitarian projects emerging from universities or non-for-profit research organisations are willing to take up the challenge of improving these crops. Gene-editing would have been a powerful tool to do this because it is faster and allows precise changes, but these kinds of humanitarian projects will struggle to afford the near-prohibitive costs of approval for innovative crops produced with new breeding technologies.
Did the judges have this in mind with their ruling? Do they take full responsibility for the consequences of their ruling? Will the European Commission be courageous enough to review the EU GMO directive after 30 years and to adjust it to implement laws based on farsightedness instead of fear?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Dr. Sarah Schmidt is a Project Coordinator, working within the Eom Group at the Heinrich Heine-University, Düsseldorf.
The Future of Plant Genomics: Navigating the latest ECJ court ruling on GM crops will be explored in an extended panel discussion at the 7th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Europe. View the agenda here.
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