Genetic editing in plants: Europe is getting closer to the rest of the world

On February 7, the European Parliament approved the European Commission’s proposal regarding the regulation of new genomic techniques (NGTs) in plants, which includes gene editing with CRISPR tools. The proposal went ahead with 307 votes in favor, 263 against and 41 abstentions.

With this approval, Europe embarks on a new path that should bring us closer to the rest of the world, which mostly embraces these technological innovations and applies them normally in their crops, and will distance us from the previous blocking positions, which isolated us as a continent. Numerous institutions and associations have prudently celebrated this favorable vote, either with press releases or statements.

A little less than a year ago, I recorded in The Conversation the regret of many European farmers, seed producers and researchers regarding the situation created after a ruling by the European High Court, in July 2018, which determined that new genetic editing techniques with CRISPR tools could not benefit from the exemption from compliance with European Directive 2001/18. This exemption was already granted to other mutagenesis techniques, by chemical or physical methods (eg by radiation), responsible for most of the vegetables, fruits and vegetables that we buy in the supermarket today.

On the contrary, the ruling ruled (without scientific evidence) that the new editing techniques would have similar risks to human health and the environment to those assumed to have other genetically modified plants, which we know as “transgenic” (which already we have known that they are safe and risk-free for many years). For this reason, he concluded, they had to follow the regulatory path set out in a Directive that, in more than 20 years of application, has only managed to approve a single variety of genetically modified plants for cultivation (Bt corn, resistant to the borer pest). ), while almost 150 have been authorized for marketing, imported and grown outside of Europe.

The paradox of the ruling was that gene editing techniques with CRISPR are neither more nor less than the most precise method we know today to genetically modify an organism. On the contrary, chemical and physical mutagenesis produces multiple unknown genetic alterations that are usually ignored and we only select the resulting plant for its usable characteristics (new color, larger fruits, a different shape, etc.). Paradoxical, right?

Two types of plants: NGT-1 and NGT-2

The European Commission recognized in 2021 that this European Directive, published 12 years before CRISPR gene editing techniques began to be used, would have to be modified. But it was not until July 2023 when it launched a proposal, which is the one that has just been approved by the European Parliament.

Briefly, the proposal divides plants obtained by new genomic techniques into two types. Firstly, the NGT-1 plants, whose genetic modifications, outlined in the proposal, could well have been obtained by traditional methods, through successive crossings and selection, although investing a lot of time and after many generations, and for this reason they are considered equivalent. These would be plants that could be exempt from the regulation of the Directive and benefit from the exemption, as is the case in the majority of countries in the world that have already adapted their legislation in this regard.

Secondly, NGT-2 plants, whose genetic modifications would not fall into the first group and would continue to be regulated by the Directive, although with a risk assessment that would take into account other considerations, such as whether the resulting crop would be more sustainable. , and then they might not have to face the complete dossier of requirements that today the promoters of any genetically modified plant or organism (GMO) still have to prepare, whether transgenic (by the addition of new external DNA sequences that give it characteristics special) or is genetically edited (with the alteration of certain DNA sequences specific to the species).

And now that? At the moment nothing has changed yet in terms of regulation. This approval by the European Parliament is only the first step. Next, the proposal to modify the regulation of plants obtained by NGT will be debated in the European Council, where all the member states are represented, which still do not have a common position on the matter and can reject the proposal.

However, it is likely that they will request changes to the proposal, that amendments and modifications be formulated to the text approved by the European Parliament. These amendments will have to be discussed in three groups, between the European Parliament (the new one that emerges after the elections in June 2024), the Council and the European Commission. It will be done in a complex legislative process known as trilogues (dialogues between three powers of the European Union), which would require a second approval of the final text to be agreed upon by the new European Parliament.

Therefore, although the approval voted these days in the European Parliament is good news that opens a horizon of hope, we are still far from our farmers and seed producers being able to benefit from the legislative modification.

As long as we cannot use NGT in our crops in Europe, we will continue to block access to technological innovations. Innovations that are already applied outside Europe, in countries that are capable of producing more and better, making the most of the land dedicated to cultivation, with plants better adapted to climate change, resistant to pests, which makes them much more competitive and sustainable. .

The lack of competitiveness is a burden for our farmers who, among other problems, see how their products are more expensive to produce and less sustainable than those imported from outside Europe. This contributes to them needing subsidies to survive, which leads to tensions like the ones we are seeing in recent weeks.

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