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The Future

The Great Gene Editing Debate: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

The EU is looking to loosen rules on the use of new genetic technologies in farming. But what does this really mean in practice – and why has the great gene editing debate proven so contentious?

Back in July of 2023, the European Commission official proposed to loosen the rules on certain new genetic techniques (NGTs), paving the way for gene-edited crops to be found on EU citizens’ plates in the near future.1

And while the polarising file is still working its way through the EU legislative process, one of the two lawmakers – the European Parliament – sealed a deal on its position in February 2024.2 This deal narrowly agreed to ease restrictions for crops developed using new genome editing techniques. All eyes are now on their counterparts in the Council but, with ministers unable to agree over the details, EU countries failed to clinch a deal on their side before the end of the legislature, pushing the great gene editing debate down the line.3

But what exactly are these ‘new genetic techniques’? What is the EU proposal currently on the table and why has it proven so contentious? Read on for an overview of the situation and the key issues as they stand.

What’s so ‘new’ about these genetic techniques?

New genomic techniques (NGTs) for the purpose of the recent proposal – describes several scientific methods developed over the past two decades that can be used to alter genomes and genetically engineer certain traits into plants much faster than conventional breeding methods allow. But how do these new technologies differ from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Well, that very much depends on who you talk to.

GMOs use certain techniques to alter DNA in a way that would not occur naturally - this includes inserting genes from other species. In comparison, proponents for gene editing argue that a key differentiating feature is that scientists work purely with the plants own DNA. “There's things you can do with GM, you can't do with gene editing,” Professor Nigel Halford, who runs the first gene-edited field trial of wheat in Europe at Rothamsted Research, explained.

Meanwhile, industry players maintain that the use of new genetic ‘scissor’ technologies – such as one called ‘CRISPR-Cas’ – allow for more precise DNA snipping for much more specific, targeted interventions than previous GMO techniques. However, this is contested by green campaigners, who see NGTs as simply a new flavour of new GMOs with the “same old risks”.” “It’s time to put an end to the absurd fantasy that they require shortcuts instead of scrutiny,” Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said in a recent statement. The distinction between the two therefore remains disputed.

Two-pronged approach

Amid intense debate, the EU’s highest court issued a ruling back in 2018 that NGTs should be classified as GMOs, and thus treated according to the EU’s stringent GMO legislation.4

But far from putting an end to discussions, the European Commission has since proposed a workaround. The idea currently on the table – which has since been backed by the European Parliament – is to separate NGT plants into two different streams, and thus two different approval paths.

NGT plants considered equivalent to conventional ones (so-called ‘NGT 1’ plants) would be exempted from the requirements of the EU’s GMO legislation. The Commission’s proposal outlines a number of conditions plants must fulfil to qualify for this status, including that they must differ by no more than 20 genetic modifications from the parent plant and/or that resulting DNA sequences already occur in a species from the breeders’ gene pool. Any modified plants that fall outside the specifications would be classified as ‘category 2 NGT plants’ and would be subject to the EU’s stricter requirements.5

But the distinction is not as clear-cut for everyone involved in the debate.

A number of reports from multiple national agencies, including the French health agency ANSES and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), have recently concluded that there is no scientific basis for this criteria.6,7 Instead, both national authorities recommend case-by-case safety checks concerning potential health and environmental risks. Meanwhile, the EU’s Food Safety Agency (EFSA) is currently putting together a scientific opinion on the validity of this two-pronged approach.8

The European Commission's classification of NGTs.

‘Green’ editing?

But why is the EU so keen to push ahead with this controversial technology?

The push on gene editing is framed around the potential sustainability benefits it could bring, with the Commission’s proposal positioning it as a “possible tool to increase sustainability of agri-food systems and contribute to guaranteeing food security”. For instance, the proposal lists a number of traits that could help maximise scarce resources, such as tolerance to drought, heat and pests, all of which are predicted to significantly worsen in coming years due to climate change.

For Rothamsted’s Halford, gene editing could play a part in “just about every aspect of plant breeding”. The Professor, who is at the cutting edge of genetic research, argues the technology has “potentially huge implications” for the EU’s sustainability goals, pointing to traits which help improve nitrogen use efficiency and bolster crops against disease, helping to reduce chemical inputs such as pesticides.

Likewise, EU farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca sees NGTs as a “crucial asset to help European farmers facing the consequences of climate change,” while EU seeds lobby Euroseeds maintains the technology is a key part of the transition towards a “resilient, truly sustainable food system.” While backers acknowledge that the technology is not a silver bullet, they argue that this is one tool in the farmers’ toolbox that could help achieve sustainable ambitions.

Professor Nigel Halford showcases a field trial of gene-edited wheat. This trial looks at managing acrylamide, a chemical that can form in some foods during high temperature processing, by knocking out the genes that lead to its development. Video credit: Natasha Foote

Not all that glitters is gold

Not everyone is convinced by the green promises of the technology.

“The Commission naively thinks that NGTs will solve drought issues, but droughts are the consequence of industrial agriculture,” Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe’s Martin Dermine wrote in a recent statement, pointing to greenhouse gas emissions by soil degradation and overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.9 Meanwhile, the campaign group warns that a significant portion of gene-edited crops in the development pipeline are herbicide-tolerant crops. This trait allows farmers to spray chemical pesticides without the risk that it will damage their crops.

While policymakers debated adding a restriction on the use of herbicide-tolerant NGT crops, this did not make it to the final version of the proposal. This could mean an increase in the use of harmful pesticides, according to PAN.

“Experience has shown that resistance leads to the use of cocktails of pesticides applied to counter these developments,” Dermine said, pointing to “far-reaching detrimental impacts on the environment, public health and quality of water supplies” in the United States, Latin America and Asia. According to think-tank Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, between 1995 and 2014, the global use of glyphosate increased almost 15-fold, which the NGO puts down to an increase in the use of herbicide-tolerant crops.10

Critics like PAN see the technology as a way to prop up harmful industrial practices, such as the intensive use of monocultures, and continue business as usual with the same production-oriented logic. Instead, they stress the need to tackle the root of the problem and promote agroecological farming practices which capitalise on natural solutions, focus on soil building and encourage biodiversity.

Patent-ly problematic

Herbicide tolerance is by no means the only contentious point in the great gene editing debate, with risk management, mandatory labelling and traceability all remaining key areas of concern.

Meanwhile, long-debated question marks remain over potential unforeseen environmental and health impacts of the technology. Back in 2020, an EFSA scientific opinion concluded that genome editing does not pose any additional hazards compared to conventional breeding or other genetic modification methods.11 The food safety agency suggested that a lesser amount of data might be needed for the risk assessment of these plants and products made from them.

But campaigners maintain that the direct and indirect impacts of putting these new gene edited crops in the wild have not been assessed. They argue that no research has been conducted on how NGTs interact with bees and other pollinators, nor on the technology’s potential impact on biodiversity loss.12 

However, it is the ownership of the controversial technology that has proven the make or break point for lawmakers in negotiations. This is because the Commission chose not to address the issue in its original proposal. “As the proposal stands, there is no protection for peasants and small seed companies against patent abuse and infringement proceedings,” small farmers’ association European Coordination Via Campesina warned in a recent statement, stressing that these proceedings will “become reality in the event of NGTs being deregulated”.13

On the other hand, EU seed lobby Euroseeds maintains that intellectual property is “crucial for plant breeders as it stimulates ongoing innovation”. One representative for the group told FoodUnfolded that they are currently exploring “different tools and solutions to address the adequate balance, also depending on the different business models,” but it is “too premature to say” exactly what this might look like.

But for MEPs, the issue is clear – there should be a full ban on patents for all NGT plants and plant material. This is needed to “avoid legal uncertainties, increased costs and new dependencies for farmers and breeders,” according to a Parliament press release.2 However, things are less clear-cut over in the Council, where ownership remains a major impasse between EU countries – especially, according to diplomatic sources, for the biggest swing vote in the mix, Poland, who is staunchly against the use of patents on gene edited plants.14

While Poland is not the only country with its issues on the NGT proposal, with 8% of the vote, a greenlight from the central European country would be enough to win enough support from member states for a general position. This means Poland has been the focal point of efforts in the Council to push the file over the finish line – but remains steadfast in its opposition over the patent problem, bringing conversations to a stand-still while EU countries attempt to find a work-around.

Timeline

With discussions hitting a dead-end in the Council, the EU will not manage to seal a deal on the issue this side of the EU’s June elections. But even in the event that things start moving at the policy level, scientists suggest that the impact of the technology will not be seen overnight.

“I think the authorities [are] probably over-optimistic about how soon they might see commercial crops in the field,” Rothamsted’s Halford said, pointing out that it takes “several years” to get new varieties from the lab to the field. “So it's not going to happen next year,” he concluded. Meanwhile, the regulatory uncertainty around the use of the technology remains a block for work to advance on gene-edited crops, he added, making long-term investments more challenging.

But while many question marks remain over the potential of this technology, one thing is clear – the great gene editing debate will continue to rear its (good, bad and) ugly head in the near future.

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References
  1. Euractiv, 2023. ‘EU ministers fail to find compromise on gene editing’. Accessed April 2024
  2. Court of Justice of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2018. ‘Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive. Accessed 10 March 2024
  3. European Parliament briefing, 2024. ‘Plants produced using new genomic techniques’. Access 24 April 2024.
  4. ANSES, 2024. ‘New genomic techniques (NGTs) : ANSES calls for appropriate regulations’. Accessed 10 March 2024.
  5. BfN, 2021. ‘New developments and regulatory issues in plant genetic engineering’. Accessed 10 March 2024.
  6. ARC2020, 2024. ‘EU Food Safety Agency to Give New Opinion on New Genomic Techniques/New GMOs’. Accessed April 2024.
  7. Pesticide Action Network, July 2023. ‘By deregulating new GMOs, the European Commission goes against the will of its own citizens’. Accessed 10 March 2024
  8. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung et al. 2022. ‘Pesticide Atlas’. Accessed 10 March 2024.
  9. EFSA, 2020. ‘Existing guidance appropriate for assessment of genome editing in plants’. Accessed March 2024.
  10. European Parliament (2024). ‘Plants produced using new genomic techniques - Briefing’. Accessed March 2024.
  11. ECVC, 2024. ‘ECVC welcomes the Council of the EU decision to block the deregulation of GMO-NGTs and condemns the European Parliament’s hasty approval of an incoherent and unenforceable proposal’. Accessed March 2024.
  12. ARC2020, 2024. ‘Parliament greenlights plans to loosen EU rules on new GMOs – but with key conditions’. Accessed April 2024.
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