The first open-source detection method for a gene-edited crop has been developed, according to a scientific paper. Environmental NGOs and campaign groups said this could hypothetically allow the EU to carry out checks to prevent unauthorised imports, but the EU seed sector quickly refuted this claim.
The new paper, published in the scientific journal Foods on Monday (7 September) after peer review, offers a method able to detect ‘SU Canola’, a herbicide-tolerant rapeseed variety that was developed by the American gene-editing company, Cibus.
The European Court of Justice ruled two years ago that gene-edited organisms fall, in principle, under the EU’s GMO directive.
However, this decision was followed by much debate as to whether these crops can be distinguished from naturally derived crops, and therefore if it could be upheld.
With no way of identifying gene-edited from conventionally selected varieties, EU countries have thus far been unable to test their imports for the presence of gene-edited crops, despite calls for more stringent monitoring processes.
Asked about the implications that this new development holds for the future of GE technology in the EU, a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that they are “aware of this publication” but are currently “reviewing and analysing the details” of the study.
Campaigners now say this research demonstrates that this is indeed possible, and also applicable to other crop varieties.
Lead scientist Dr John Fagan from the Health Research Institute in Iowa, USA, said that the method developed detects “what is probably the most challenging class of gene edits – a modification of just a single letter in the genetic blueprint”.
“Since the scientific community has been using similar approaches for two decades to detect more complex GMOs, it is likely that this approach can be used to develop detection methods for most, if not all, gene-edited crops,” he said, adding that it also uses procedures and equipment “similar to those that regulatory and commercial laboratories are already familiar with.”
Frank Narendja, head of the GMO analytic laboratory of the department land use and biosafety with the Austrian environment agency, said the agency had tested the method and found that it “meets all analytical requirements for a reliable GMO detection method.”
“This is an important step towards effective controls,” he added.
The new detection method was hailed as a “milestone in EU consumer and business protection” by Heike Moldenhauer, EU policy advisor at the German association Food without Genetic Engineering.
“Authorities can now start identifying unauthorised gene-edited crops. This helps beekeepers, farmers, breeders, feed and food processors and retailers keep these new GMOs out of their supply chains and meet consumers’ demand for non-GMO food”, he said.
Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg added that the study demonstrates that “GM crops created with gene editing can be detected,” emphasising that there are “no more excuses for failing to apply existing GMO safety and labelling requirements to these new GMOs”.
“The European Commission and governments must build on this success and develop screening procedures that can identify gene-edited products,” she stressed.
However, EU seed sector organisation, Euroseeds, told EURATIV that the study demonstrates “nothing new”, stressing there has never been any scientific doubt about the fact that these genetic changes can be detected, but rather about whether the detection is able to prove whether the change was naturally derived or a consequence of gene editing.
“It is therefore still not possible to determine how the point mutation was generated and, consequently, if the resulting plant is considered a regulated GMO in the European Union,” Petra Jorasch, manager of plant breeding innovation advocacy at Euroseeds, told EURACTIV.
She said the study does not provide any solution to the differentiation of genome-edited mutagenesis products “in view of their regulatory status worldwide”.
“This means that if respective products are put on the market in those countries, neither a validated detection method nor information about the genetic change might be available,” Jorasch said, emphasising Euroseeds’ position that GE crops should not be regulated as classical genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Euroseeds added that CIBUS, the developer of the rapeseed variety in question, had analysed in the publication and confirmed to Euroseeds that the varieties were in fact developed from “spontaneous somaclonal variation”, i.e. a natural occurrence, rather than genetically engineered.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]