Jul. 24, 2023
By Devang Mehta
Five years ago, I found myself profoundly disillusioned with the discourse on genetically modified (GM) organisms in Europe, and eventually left to pursue research across the Atlantic. Having grown up in India and moved to Switzerland to earn a PhD in one of Europe’s few remaining plant biotechnology laboratories (a lab where the pioneering golden rice was developed), I found the European rejection of plant biotechnology to be an example of first-world privilege.
Some of the key technologies used to engineer plants by introducing genes from another species were invented at European universities, yet in 2001 the European Union effectively prohibited the growing of GM plants in its fields. The move has technologically weakened Europe’s agriculture sector and driven science talent to other countries.
So it was welcome news earlier this month when the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, formally proposed a long-awaited new law to govern the use of new genomic techniques (NGTs). This is an umbrella term for technologies, notably CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing, that can precisely edit genomes without adding DNA from another species. Under current EU rules, plants modified using NGTs are strictly regulated as GM crops. The new law promises a welcome break from the technophobic recent past.
The potential positive impact of CRISPR and other NGTs is massive. Conventional plant breeding often takes years or decades to produce new plant varieties. My group used CRISPR to improve the composition of starch in cassava plants in three years (S. E. Bull et al. Sci. Adv. 4, eaat6086; 2018); it would have taken almost a decade using conventional means. Using CRISPR to precisely edit plant genomes is a faster way to breed resistance to agricultural diseases — such as bacterial blight in rice and Fusarium fungus in bananas — which cost the world more than US$220 billion a year, or to change the nutritional quality of plants by, for example, creating low-gluten wheat that could be tolerated by people with coeliac disease. Speeding up plant breeding is also an essential part of feeding the world in the face of accelerating climate change, which is causing more frequent droughts, floods and heatwaves.
The EU’s proposal would create two categories of plants made using NGTs. Category 1 plants would be those with genomic modifications that closely resemble or cannot be easily distinguished from those of conventionally bred plant varieties — even sequencing their genomes might not reveal whether they had been produced using NGTs or conventional breeding techniques. For example, making plants disease resistant by turning off ‘susceptibility genes’ that are co-opted by plant pathogens often involves modifying just one to three base pairs of DNA out of the millions in a plant’s genome. These plants would be freed from older GM rules and regulated similarly to conventionally bred plants, in line with an emerging global consensus on regulating such NGTs. Category 2 plants would be those with more than 20 modified base pairs — those engineered to be resistant to multiple pathogens, for example — and would be subject to many of the same rules as GM plants.
Although there is much to celebrate in the new law, it illogically excludes all NGTs from organic agriculture. Category 1 NGT plants will essentially be defined as conventional crops for non-organic farms, but GM crops for organic farms. There is no scientific basis for this, especially given that the commission concedes that it can be impossible to differentiate between such plants and their conventionally bred counterparts. This also means that the commission’s plan to label all seeds and plant reproductive material using or derived from NGTs would be nearly impossible to enforce.
Critics will counter that organic farmers and consumers do not want to grow or eat gene-edited plants. But although members of some organic groups oppose CRISPR modification, others, such as Urs Niggli, president of the Institute of Agroecology in Switzerland, see value in NGTs. The proposed move would block their ability to use the techniques. It is worrying that the commission proposes to increase organic farming to cover a quarter of European farmland by 2030 under its Farm to Fork strategy while limiting innovation in organic breeding. Organic farming offers environmental and soil-health benefits, but research shows that it currently uses too much land to make large-scale conversion of farming systems feasible (A. Muller et al. Nature Commun. 8, 1290; 2017). NGTs are a powerful tool that could help organic agriculture to make the leaps in yield and disease resistance needed to level up to a larger scale.
The legislative proposal is just the first step — it must be discussed and approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers from individual EU member states.
Early-career plant scientists are leading initiatives such as GeneSprout and RePlanet that advocate for sensible NGT regulations. For the first time, I feel a growing optimism among this community that our research could have a real-world impact. Our enthusiasm is matched by a sense of urgency to adapt European agriculture to climate change, an urgency that I often find lacking in ideological opponents of NGTs. The EU can and should play a greater part in ensuring global food security. I urge both ministers and legislators to embrace science-guided definitions for NGTs, and resist calls to further limit this technology.
Nature 619, 437 (2023)