If the European Union wants to fully utilize the genetic potential of crops, new breedingtechnologies (NBTs) should be treated no differently than traditional breeding methods.An unnecessarily burdensome approval procedure is illogical and counterproductive,especially during a time of rapidly increasing food prices and global geopolitical conflictsthat disrupt supply chains.

Prior to 2018, NBTs were not subject to GMO legislation in the European Union (EU), at least not at the EU level. Member states had the liberty to create their own policies. That changed in June 2018 when the European Court of Justice ruled that NBTs should be subject to the GMO-directive from 2001. As a result, NBT crops cannot be produced in the EU without overcoming the unnecessary and burdensome regulatory hurdles that have all but blocked the growing of transgenic GMOs. To date there has been only one GMO-crop grown in Europe, small plots of Bt-maize in Spain and Portugal, but they were introduced in 1998 before the GMO-directive came into effect.

Updating legislation is quite a cumbersome process in the European Union. Following the ruling of the EU Court of Justice in 2018, the European Council urged the Commission to submit a study in preparation for an update of the GMO-legislation in the light of fast-developing new breeding technologies. Published in April 2021, it was followed by two years of consultations and debates. Officials from the Commission hope to get approval for the draft this summer, but sources in Brussels – according to the newsletter AgraFacts– say that given the highly sensitive and political nature of the dossier, it might well be postponed until the next administration takes office. That won’t be till November 2024.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which separated from the EU after Brexit, already has recently adopted its Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act.

NBT pros and cons

NBTs offer tremendous potential for society, particularly in providing new tools to address climate change, human and animal health, and environmental protection. Furthermore, if small, and medium-sized firms and farmer-breeders collectives can access these technologies, they can enhance both major and minor crops, making it possible for smallholder farmers to benefit from genome-editing. 

NBTs could also play a crucial role in achieving the objectives of the EU’s Green Deal, particularly the Farm-to-Fork strategy aimed at advancing the sustainable development of the European food system. The strategy aims to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides by 50%. Gene editing is also an important tool to speed up resistance breeding for instance in potatoes (virus Y and late blight). It also aims to reduce the use of mineral fertilizer by 20% by increasing its use efficiency, something else for which gene editing can be instrumental.

Additionally, NBTs have the potential to improve the nutritional value of agricultural products and align the composition of foodstuffs with consumer needs. A group of mainly European researchers has developed a tomato variety with increased levels of vitamin D which is a crucial nutrient for preventing various diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, bone diseases, and serious forms of COVID-19.

Gene editing can also be used to reduce or block the production of naturally occurring allergenic substances in plants. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, is a notorious example that can lead to severe reactions such as celiac disease or less severe reactions such as gluten intolerance. Gene editing has already been used to develop several cereal varieties in which the production of the proteins causing the allergy or intolerance is reduced or blocked.

European political resistance to NBTs

Notwithstanding the potential for promoting sustainable and healthy food systems, six out of 27 Member States (of whom Germany is the largest) and factions in the EU Parliament— notably the Greens/EFA, but also members of other factions — have raised concerns about potential unintended consequences of modern gene editing techniques. 

Their concerns range from the creation of harmful products or by-products to the emergence of invasive species. Another worry is that these new breeding technologies would lead to a further ‘industrialization’ of European agriculture, i.e., further scaling up of agriculture with high inputs of pesticides and fertilizer. Greenpeace, in a diatribe entitled“NEW GMO: DANGER AHEAD”, claims:

… gene (or genome) editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas could not only exacerbate the negative effects of industrial farming on nature, animals and people, but it could effectively turn both nature and ourselves (through the food we eat) into a gigantic genetic engineering experiment with unknown, potentially irrevocable outcomes. 

What is noteworthy about these concerns is that they almost always focus selectively on the use of recent agricultural genetic techniques alone. Classical cross-breedingexperiments as well as classical mutagenesis, in which seeds are exposed to radiation and chemicals, are considered “safe”. No one worries about a seedless watermelon (hybridization) or about products from mutagenesis like durum wheat for pasta and the pink grapefruit.

NGO criticism of gene editing focuses mainly on the alleged potential of unintended effects. The European anti-crop biotechnology lobby group GMWatch claims in a response to the passage of the UK Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill:

All types of gene editing – including SDN-1 and -2 – are prone to unintended effectsthat could change patterns of gene function and thus the biochemistry of gene-edited plants, which in addition to negatively impacting crop performance can makethem toxic or allergenic, able to adversely affect wildlife, or able to impact the healthof gene-edited animals. 

This is a mixture of misinformation and hyperbole. There is absolutely no evidence (and none was cited) backing its contention that CRISPR “negatively impacts crop performance”; they literally just made that up. Unintended effects can occur with any breeding technique, including in nature where spontaneous mutations are the driving force behind evolution, and in conventional breeding. 

The chance of unintended effects occurring is actually lower with modern targeted breeding techniques than with traditional and less precise methods. The reason for this is clear: in traditional cross-breeding, the genetic material of two different varieties is combined, and through a series of crosses, breeders aim to produce a new variety with the desired characteristics. 

Ignoring the overwhelming science consensus, GMWatch and other environmental NGOs across Europe, continue to insist that EU-style precautionary restrictions, a de facto ban, should be kept in place in every country. That rejectionist argument convinces almost no scientists. New breeding techniques such as CRISPR mimic what occurs in nature, which is why dozens of countries have or are moving towards almost complete deregulation. Just last month, an independent study by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization noted that:

The possible effects of gene editing on food safety, quality, and trade are not expected to be much different from what already exists on foods from pre-existing breeding techniques.

In addition to safety, concerns have been raised about the potential social and economic consequences of using modern breeding techniques. Critics argue that new varieties may be unaffordable for small farmers in low- and middle-income countries, leading to consolidation, and monopolization of the seed sector. From a report from the Greens/EFA in the EU Parliament:

At the end of the day, gene editing is a game for big players and will remain so. The notion that CRISPR will grant small players access to the technology is a myth. 

However, the opposite appears true, at least at this stage of commercialization. These techniques are relatively inexpensive to implement. Genome-editing technologies are becoming increasingly accessible, developed by universities and start-ups, democratizing the benefits of science. And they can be used to enhance both major and minor crops, making it possible for smallholder farmers to benefit from genome-editing.

New regulations are not needed

Over the past 50 years, the EU has successfully established an infrastructure that ensures the quality of seeds. Europe’s robust economic and knowledge ecosystem has thrived, producing some of the best and most innovative agricultural science in the world and leading in numerous other ways. However, by imposing excessively strict regulatory requirements for NBTs, the EU is undermining its own achievements.

New breeding technologies can be a powerful tool for promoting green innovation and achieving public health objectives. If the current situation remains unchanged, Europe will not be at the forefront of this technological breakthrough. Other countries, including the UK, Switzerland, and Canada, are likely to take the lead, which contradicts Europe’s ambition to excel in the green economy and strengthen its technological autonomy. 

This article is based on the essay: ‘Gene editing: an essential tool for sustainable and healthy food systems’, published in Future Europe, the magazine of the European LiberalForum. It was published in Genetic Literacy Project May 3, 2023.