Commission reopens gene editing’s box amid sustainability claims

A new study from the European Commission has concluded that the current legal framework governing new genomic techniques (NGTs) is insufficient and indicated that new policy instruments should be considered to reap the benefits of this technology.

The much-awaited study, which was published on Thursday (29 April), was requested one year ago by the EU Council to clarify the situation following a controversial European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in 2018 that organisms obtained by NGTs should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive.

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” 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.”

The study was conducted by the Commission, having consulted national competent authorities and EU-level stakeholders, and highlights the potential that NGT products and their applications have for contributing to the aims of the EU’s environmental flagship policy, the European Green Deal.

“Based on the information available and the outcome of the study, the Commission concluded that there is sufficient evidence and scientific basis to initiate a targeted policy action on plants derived from certain new genomic techniques (targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis),” Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič wrote in a letter to the Portuguese EU presidency attached to the study.

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.

In order to do so, the EU executive intends to continue to develop the required scientific knowledge, a Commission official said, adding that any further policy action should “aim at enabling NGT products to contribute to sustainability in line with the objectives of European review”.

This should not be intended as a call for an overhaul of the entire existing GMO framework, the official stressed, adding that the focus would only be on certain techniques with a certain risk profile.

“We should not necessarily talk about ‘new GMOs’ [when we talk about NGTs] because these techniques and their products that we would like to study are very similar to conventional products,” the official concluded.

EU study to clarify gene editing court ruling further muddies waters

After the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive, the Council of the EU has requested a study from the Commission to clarify the situation. But what this means in practice remains unclear.

Mixed reactions

On the sidelines of an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, Portuguese agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes said she had high expectations for the Commission’s study, although she said that gene editing is not a priority of the Portuguese presidency.

“We believe that these genomic techniques and biotech are very important, namely for the future, but it is very important as well for the legislation to be updated and to harmonise the way these things can be used,” she told EURACTIV.

In a note, the EU seeds industry organisation Euroseeds said that the study provided a not-to-be-missed opportunity to allow Europe to bring its more than 20-year-old legislation in line with scientific progress.

According to Thor Gunnar Kofoed, chair of the seed working group at the EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA, the study is a game-changer for farmers and agri-cooperatives, adding that the Commission should commit itself strongly and quickly to make up for lost time.

Likewise, the chair of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, Norbert Lins, welcomed the proposed open dialogue with citizens and member states on NGTs, commenting that Green Deal targets should go hand in hand with technological innovation.

However, for the environmental NGO Greenpeace, the Commission is opening the door for new GMOs by allowing more permissive rules on NGTs.

According to Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace EU GMO policy adviser, the EU executive and national governments must respect the precautionary principle and the European Court of Justice’s decision.

“GMOs by another name are still GMOs, and must be treated as such under the law,” he said.

Likewise, the agriculture spokesperson for the Green group in the European Parliament, Martin Häusling, stressed that new genetic engineering is still genetic engineering and should be subject to the same rules as all other processes

“We do not need a new genetic engineering law. The strict rules on authorisation, traceability and labelling must continue to apply to all genetically modified plants,” he stressed.

The environmental network Friends of Earth (FOE) Europe accused the Commission of falling for the biotech industry’s spin.

“They are suggesting tearing up decades of the precautionary principle, by allowing new GM crops onto our fields and plates without safety tests,” commented Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at FOE Europe.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]


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