There is a need to ensure a targeted approach to gene editing because not all genomic techniques confer the sustainability benefits promised in the European Commission’s new study, EU lawmakers have warned.
A notable example of this is herbicide resistance, which, as pointed out by Renew Europe MEP Martin Hojsík during a recent ENVI committee meeting, is a common trait in GE crops.
Herbicide tolerance is a plant’s ability to withstand a particular chemical herbicide. This allows the farmer to kill weeds without harming the crops.
While herbicide resistant crops enable farmers to employ a flexible and easy management strategy, the strategy is still controversial as it involves heavy use of herbicides, which may then contribute to a rising herbicide tolerance in weeds.
Pointing out that a third of all new gene edited (GE) crops in the pre-commercial stage are edited to tolerate the spraying of herbicides, Hojsík questioned whether the Commission was planning to accelerate the access to market of these traits, remarking that this is more reminiscent of ‘old’ techniques of genetic modification.
Likewise, Green MEP Martin Häusling pointed to the example of the US, which has long been an advocate of genetically modified technology but this has not led to a corresponding reduction in the use of pesticides.
“So how many plants that are resistant to drought, for example, are on the market? And what about pesticide resistant plants and getting those on the market?” he queried.
The comments came on the back of the Commission’s recently published study on new genomic techniques.
The long-awaited study, released at the end of April, highlighted 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, which includes the aim to slash by half the use and risk of pesticides.
The study 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.
But questions are now turning to how the distinction will be made between different GE crops to ensure the traits they confer are in line with the ambitions of the Green Deal.
While Irene Sacristan Sanchez, head of unit for biotechnology at the Commission’s DG SANTE, acknowledged that there are “some products in the pipeline” that are herbicide tolerant, she said there are a much broader range of applications in the pipeline than what was previously found with classic or established genomic techniques.
Moreover, although she noted that there are very few products on the market so far, there are “many in development where novel traits that would be very beneficial are being investigated,” she said.
However, she agreed that work must be done to “find a way for those products that really could bring an advantage to have a regulatory framework where we can assess their safety, but we can also take into account those beneficial traits”.
Highlighting that the degree of risk assessment will depend on the modifications introduced, which can range from “very limited to very comprehensive”, Sacristan Sanchez said this risk assessment will also be linked also to the novelty of the trait introduced.
This kind of adaptation of the risk assessment to different products resulting from different techniques and modifications is a good example of a limitation of the current legislation, she added.
“This is what our current legislation does not cater for and if we don’t address this, then we might be losing on a lot of potential of these new techniques, in the agricultural area, for starters, and in other areas,” Sacristan Sanchez warned.
The Commission’s study concluded that there are “strong indications” the current legislation is “not fit for purpose for some NGTs and their products, and needs to be adapted to scientific and technological progress.”
Following up on its study, the Commission now aims to carry out an impact assessment to prepare new legislative proposals that target selected NGTs.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]