ECJ ruling on genome edited crops again under the spotlight

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Shaiith
© GettyImages/Shaiith
The European Commission says it is continuing to analyze the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) finding that so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) should be legislated as GMOs.

The EU executive is, in parallel, also discussing the ECJ judgement with member states.

The ruling was under the spotlight during the October meeting of the Plant Animal Food and Feed (PAFF) Standing Committee “in view of possible follow-ups,”​ a Commission spokesperson told us.

Background

In July 2018, the ECJ ruled​ that crops obtained by modern forms of mutagenesis such as CRISPR are not exempt from the EU GMO legislation. Consequently, it found that genome edited crops must comply with the strict conditions of the EU GMO legislation.

Agri-food chain stakeholders railed against the top EU court’s finding, calling it a missed opportunity for agricultural innovation in the EU.

Activists like GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth, however, hailed the court’s ruling as a victory for the environment and consumers.

It is not yet clear what next steps the Commission will take on this, but EU Health Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, is pushing for a more frank debate around biotechnologies in Europe.

Speaking at a Citizens’ Dialogue on October 18 in Modena, Italy, he said “If we don’t invest in new technologies, we will lose competitiveness and young people will go abroad to work on GMOs. We need to discuss biotechnologies openly.”

Scientists urge policymakers to safeguard innovation

Scientists representing more than 85 European plant and life sciences research centers and institutes endorsed a position paper​ last month that urgently calls upon European policymakers to safeguard innovation in plant science and agriculture.

The signatories of that paper said they were deeply concerned about the ECJ ruling saying it could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding.

The implications of a very restrictive regulation of innovative plant breeding methods are far-reaching, they added.

“European agricultural innovation based on precision breeding will come to a halt because of the high threshold that this EU legislation presents. This will hinder progress in sustainable agriculture and will give a competitive disadvantage to plant breeding industries in Europe. The impacts on our society and economy will be enormous.”

To safeguard innovation in agriculture in Europe, the scientists are asking for a new regulatory framework that evaluates new crop varieties based on science.

“We regret the purely process-based interpretation of the legislation by the Court and conclude that the EU GMO legislation does not correctly reflect the current state of scientific knowledge.

“Organisms that have undergone simple and targeted genome edits by means of precision breeding and which do not contain foreign genes are at least as safe as if they were derived from classical breeding techniques.

“Therefore, we call upon all European authorities to quickly respond to this ruling and alter the legislation such that organisms containing such edits are not subject to the provisions of the GMO Directive but instead fall under the regulatory regime that applies to classically bred varieties.

“In the longer term, the GMO Directive should be thoroughly revised to correctly reflect scientific progress in biotechnology.”

Dr Wendy Harwood, a senior scientist engaged in crop transformation research in the UK at the Norwich-based plant science facility, John Innes Centre, spoke to us on the day of the ECJ ruling:

“Older mutagenesis techniques that have a long safety record are exempt from this obligation. The same outcomes can be achieved using newer, faster and more precise mutagenesis methods as using the older techniques. Treating the plants derived in different ways is not a logical approach based on the scientific evidence. This decision could have major negative impacts on our ability to respond rapidly to the challenges of providing sufficient, nutritious food under increasingly challenging conditions.”

Feed relevant plant breeding research

Prior to the ECJ judgement last summer, we spoke to Alexander Döring, secretary general, FEFAC, to get an insight into the EU livestock and feed industry needs when it came to plant breeding research.

“If you want to get anywhere closer to increasing the attractiveness of [EU cultivated] protein crops, oilseed crops, a lot of things have to happen on the plant breeding side. In order to really maximize opportunities, we need an interface between seed and feed research – that is something we are really missing today – what we are trying to accomplish is closer interaction between the animal nutrition research side and the plant breeding research side. To understand the dynamics of our industry, it would be very important for us that plant breeders know what it is that animal nutrition scientists are looking for.”

Protein quality, amino acid composition and profiling, reduction of anti-nutritional factors are just some of the elements that need to be considered when selecting plant proteins and oilseeds for use in feed formulations, he stressed.

“We are looking for ways to establish a more systematic, a broader based dialogue between animal nutrition and plant breeding scientists,”​ he continued.

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