New genomic techniques (NGTs) have received the backing of the European Commission in a strategy paper, while NGOs promise an intense campaign against them over the coming years.
The second annual Strategic Foresight Report presented on Wednesday (8 September) has implications for the agricultural sector related to gene editing.
“Biotechnology, including new genomic techniques, could play a key role in developing innovative and sustainable ways to protect harvests from pests, diseases and the climate change effects,” states the document drafted by the EU executive.
The inclusion of this passage confirms the stance of the Commission, which has long appeared to be sympathetic towards gene editing.
The term NGTs describes a number of scientific methods used to alter genomes with the aim of genetically engineering certain traits into plants, such as drought tolerance and pest resistance.
Unlike traditional GMOs, which typically transfer genes between species, NGTs induce changes within the same species.
However, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) placed traditional GMOs and NGTs ruling on an equal footing in 2018, stating that the latter should, in principle, fall under the GMO directive – leaving the industry ‘shocked’ and the Commission ‘surprised’.
Following the controversial ruling, the Council requested a study from the Commission to clarify the situation, which ultimately arrived last April.
While the Commission’s study does not question the legal ruling, it does conclude that developments in biotechnology, combined with a lack of definitions of key terms, are still giving rise to ambiguity in the interpretation of some concepts, potentially leading to regulatory uncertainty.
In particular, the study states that there are “strong indications” that the current legislation is “not fit for purpose for some NGTs and their products, and that it needs to be adapted to scientific and technological progress.”
As a follow-up to this study, the Commission intends to carry out an impact assessment with a view to new proposals targeting selected NGTs.
This should not be intended as a call for an overhaul of the entire existing GMO framework, an EU official stressed, adding that the focus would only be on certain techniques with a certain risk profile.
According to the specialised media Agrafacts, there is a tentative 4-year horizon to exempt targeted mutagenesis techniques and cisgenesis techniques from the GMO Directive, while a 10-year timeframe is seen as a likely option to regulate all the other NGTs on a case-by-case risk assessment.
This roadmap has been seen as an attempt to deregulate the matter by several NGOs active in the campaign against GMOs.
At the beginning of September, a coalition of NGOs, peasant farmer organisations and business associations sent a letter to the Commission criticising the approach of its study.
The coalition contested the consultation process that led to the final document as three-quarters of inputs came from the farming industry.
They also criticised the claim that NGTs could contribute to sustainability without any evidence to back them up, adding that the Commission relies too much on the unverifiable promises of the food industry.
After three years of deadlock following the ECJ ruling, biotechnology is expected to be placed at the heart of the EU agri-food agenda.
On 6 September, the Dutch Wageningen University decided to give away for free the intellectual property licenses for CRISPR, the technology behind gene editing, in a bid to make research in this field easier.
According to Wageningen University Professor Louise Fresco, the issue will take centre stage during the UN Food Systems Summit on 23 September.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]