The EU’s regulatory framework on gene editing is insufficient and risks pushing out research and innovation away from the bloc, according to one Green MEP, diverging from her party’s strong stance on the matter.
“The regulatory framework is not sufficient. We know this,” Viola von Cramon-Taubadel said during a recent event, highlighting that this is something that scientists have been flagging for a number of years.
In particular, von Cramon-Taubadel criticised the current regulatory framework for stifling innovation and pushing EU-based researchers with valuable genetic skill sets elsewhere.
Pointing out that researchers see “no perspective” for their future careers and that this is a “very emergent” situation, she said there is a need to ensure that people who started their career in genetic science or breeding are kept in the EU as their products “will be needed in a couple of years more than ever”.
“We have to make sure that innovation and technological progress, which is being created in research institutes and universities in the EU, have a chance to become a market good as well,” she said.
As such, Von Cramon-Taubadel said researchers need a more “liberal and open framework”, adding that a protectionist stance in the EU agricultural sector is not a “smart solution” in terms of science.
This is not the first time that von Cramon-Taubadel has openly challenged the Greens’ long-held anti-GM stance, after she signed a controversial paper backing the use of gene editing technologies in June 2020.
This led to some questioning whether the party’s stance towards the technology may be softening, which it staunchly refuted.
Her concerns were echoed by other panellists, who highlighted the cost of such a brain drain.
“Following the European Court of Justice ruling, many companies have moved their research activities elsewhere,” said Garlich von Essen, secretary-general of Euroseeds, referring to the 2018 ruling that concluded that gene-edited organisms fall, in principle, under the GMO directive.
This risks “cutting Europe off of some of the most important technological developments”, he warned, adding that this is also a considerable cost to already scant human resources.
“There’s pretty fierce competition for the best brains, and this is true specifically in plant breeding,” he said, pointing out that this is a very international sector and this runs the risk that these innovators will move elsewhere.
“And that will be to the detriment of the EU, not only economically, but I’m pretty sure also environmentally,” von Essen warned.
The European Commission also seemed sympathetic on this point, with Sabine Jülicher, director of food and feed safety at the Commission’s DG SANTE, saying she shared the concerns of the other speakers when it comes to allowing access to the development, and eventually marketing, of genetic technology, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
“We need any innovative tool that we can have in Europe to address the challenges, provided we can reassure ourselves that these are safe for humans, the animals and the environment,” she said.
The comments come on the back of the publication of a widely anticipated study on new genomic techniques from the European Commission.
The current legal framework governing their use in the EU is insufficient, the report concluded, and, as such, indicated that new policy instruments should be considered to reap the benefits of this technology.
On research and innovation, the report highlighted that many member states mentioned that the current regulatory framework “brings challenges for new genomic techniques (NGT) research activities: R&D is negatively affected, putting EU academics and public and private research institutions at a competitive disadvantage internationally”.
However, it also noted that some stakeholders, namely NGOs, consider the regulation has had positive effects as it allows research into “less risky innovation and into alternative conventional and non-NGT strategies”.
Meanwhile others point out that, contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily regulation that is the limiting factor for SMEs entering the gene editing market.
Speaking to EURACTIV in 2020, Michael Antoniou, head of the gene expression and therapy group at King’s College London, pointed out that flawed financial strategies, failure to attract the right investment, inexperienced management and mediocre science are more likely to be the main reasons that the vast majority of biotech SMEs fail.
Antoniou therefore concluded that deregulation of gene editing would have a “limited effect” on SMEs, given that the development of gene-edited plants will take a similar input of resources and time, regardless of more lenient regulation.
Meanwhile, in their ‘Gene editing myths and reality” report published in March year, the Green party, led by MEPs Benoît Biteau and Martin Häusling, pointed out that more relaxed regulation elsewhere has not seen a corresponding rise in technological developments.
“Despite years of research and permissive regulatory regimes in some countries, only
two gene-edited products have successfully made it to market and neither was produced
with the much-hyped CRISPR/Cas tool,” the report reads, referring to the genetic engineering method used to create NGTs.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]