The call comes as the EU Commission is expected to present its views on the future regulation of new genomic plant breeding techniques at the end of April, based on an in-house study mandated by the EU Council of Ministers.
The signatories of the letter to the Commission indicated they were deeply concerned about attempts to deregulate an emerging new generation of genetically modified (GM) crops and animals engineered with new genomic techniques such as CRISPR/Cas.
The EU Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that this new generation of GM organisms must be regulated under the EU’s existing GMO laws. Their exclusion from the EU GMO directive, according to the signatories, “would compromise the objective of protection pursued by the directive and would fail to respect the precautionary principle which it seeks to implement,” as per paragraph 53 of the ruling.
New plant genetic modification techniques, referred to as 'gene editing' or 'genome editing', have evolved rapidly in recent years, allowing much faster and more precise results than conventional plant-breeding techniques.
They are seen in some quarters as a promising innovative field for the agri-food industry, offering great technical potential, critical tools to help breeders and farmers to do more with less inputs.
There is, however, considerable debate as to how these new techniques should be regulated, and whether some or all of them should fall within the scope of EU legislation on GMOs.
Those who take the view that the new techniques should be exempt from GMO legislation generally argue that the end product is very similar to products generated using conventional breeding techniques, or that similar changes could also occur naturally.
Those who consider that the new techniques should fall within the scope of GMO legislation contend that the processes used mean that plants bred using the new techniques are in fact genetically modified.
ECJ ruling sparked criticism and praise
That ECJ judgement in 2018, while welcomed by some, also sparked criticism, and calls for the Commission to amend EU GMO legislation.
Agribusiness groups see the ECJ ruling as one that risks leaving European agriculture isolated from the benefits of innovative developments vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
In June 2019, FEDIOL, a body representing the EU vegetable oil and protein meal sector, said that pant breeding innovations need to be treated differently to GMOs in order to leverage their potential to contribute to sustainability goals. The EU’s GMO directive was no longer fit for purpose, it stressed.
Digitalization, precision farming, and plant breeding innovation are essential to the development of smart agriculture and sustainable intensification of production, added that organization.