The European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) issued a statement on Tuesday (13 November) saying the directive on genetically modified organisms should be revised in order to adjust to the current knowledge, especially when it comes to gene editing.
SAM, a group of chief scientific advisors which provides the EU executive with independent advice, recommended revising the existing GMO directive to “reflect current knowledge and scientific evidence, in particular on gene editing and established techniques of genetic modification”.
“There is a need to improve EU GMO legislation to be clear, evidence-based, implementable, proportionate and flexible enough to cope with future advances in science and technology in this area,” the advisory body said.
This opinion is in line with a recent statement made by the US government, which basically said that the EU GM legislation is outdated.
“We encourage the European Union to seek input from the scientific and agricultural communities, as well as its trading partners, in determining the appropriate implementation of the ruling,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.
The future of the so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) is now under discussion between the Commission and member states at the Plant Animal Food and Feed Standing Committee, following a European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant breeding technique are GMOs and should, in principle, fall under the GMO Directive [See background].
The ECJ decision shocked the industry, which said it would deal a severe blow to innovation in Europe, while it was hailed by environmentalists, who said the decision actually blocked the entry of “hidden GMOs” through the back door.
SAM said the ECJ ruling could be expected to have “important consequences for European citizens – both consumers and farmers”.
“It may also have impacts on international trade and cooperation with developing countries, and very likely, also on the EU research and innovation landscape,” SAM warned.
SAM explained that no single breeding technique alone could provide a “magic bullet” for solving the problem of unsustainable food production and food scarcity in the world.
“However, gene editing has the potential to contribute to food security, which is particularly relevant given the growing world population and climate change.”
Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, welcomed the SAM opinion, saying that gene editing is a critical technology with an enormous potential to improve human health and preserve the environment.
“SAM statement will contribute to a well-informed debate on the regulatory framework needed to maintain high levels of protection while enabling innovations that contribute to the environment and wellbeing,” Moedas said.
Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety said that “as a scientist myself, I see great merit in keeping pace with innovations so that society can benefit from new science and technology. To make the best out of such developments, I encourage a broad reflection and discussion on how we, as a society, want to go forward with such issues as gene editing”.
Greenpeace: Apply GM laws
Commenting on the SAM opinion, Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy adviser, told EURACTIV that the scientific advisers recognised the danger arising from the use of these new genetic engineering techniques.
“But they have no advice on how to deal with this. The risk they want to avert is a different one – a perceived problem of ‘falling behind’ other nations,” she said.
In their opinion, the EU advisers said that further research and innovation in this area would help better understand the possible risks and benefits for society, the environment, agriculture and the economy.
“The EU should first and foremost prevent harm to people and the environment, and therefore apply its GMO regulations to all genetically engineered organisms, whether they’re derived from new or old techniques,” Achterberg emphasised.
New plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) focus on developing new seed traits within a given species through genetic engineering.
In 2016, France asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether a variety of herbicide-resistant rapeseed obtained through NPBTs should follow the GMO approval process.