EU calls for new regulation for gene-edited crops

A new study from the European Commission has concluded that the current legal framework governing new genomic techniques (NGTs) is insufficient and that new policy instruments are needed to reap the benefits of this technology in order to meet sustainability targets.

By Jenny Brunton, Senior European Policy Advisor, British Agriculture Bureau.

The way these NGTs should be regulated is the subject of debate across the world. In the UK, DEFRA recently consulted on how new genetic technologies in agriculture should be regulated in England. This all stems back to 2018, when the European Court of Justice ruled that crops obtained from techniques that altered the genetic material should be subject to the same rules as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including checks and content labelling for products. The judgement caused dismay across EU institutions, member states, industry and the science community.

Concerned the ruling would have a negative impact on innovation and sustainable agriculture, the EU Council asked the EU Commission at the end of 2019 to review the impact of the ruling and recommend how gene editing (GE) should be regulated.

Why should GE and GMO be regulated in different ways?

GE is done by a group of technologies that make the changes within the organism's own DNA by moving, adding or deleting precise pieces of genetic material. Scientists argue that such changes are what happens in conventional breeding and can also come from induced mutations, as seen in the malting barley variety Golden Promise. In contrast to this, GM technologies involve inserting new DNA into an organism’s genome to introduce desired characteristics into plants or animals.

New survey results published

At the end of April 2021, the European Commission published its eagerly awaited study on New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). The study found that the current GMO legislation is not fit for purpose for many of the technologies that have been developed since the legislation was adopted in 2001.

The Commission will now start a wide and open consultation process to discuss the design of a new legal framework for these biotechnologies on plants derived from targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis (two gene-editing techniques), including the Nobel prize winning CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system. An impact assessment will be developed as part of this work to look into the design of a proposal that combines high levels of safety with clear added value to society and the environment.

For other organisms and NGTs, the Commission intends to continue to build up the required scientific knowledge, in view of possible further policy actions. So for now, gene editing technology for livestock will remain, at this stage, subject to the current GMO legal framework.

What future policy will look like

The aim is to establish proportionate regulations for plants derived from gene editing based on the outcome of the future impact assessment, risk assessment, and authorisation procedures, including any labelling or traceability requirements.

It would maintain the objectives of the current legislation when it comes to high level protection of human and animal health and the environment.

NGT products have the potential to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems demanded by the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy. They have resistance to diseases, environmental conditions and climate change effects, as well as improved agronomic or nutritional traits and reduced use of agricultural inputs.

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