EU scientists call for rethink on genome editing

European scientists have called on the newly-elected European Parliament and European Commission (EC) to rethink genome editing technology restrictions, exactly a year after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that plants obtained through the technology should be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

An open statement published on 25 July and signed by 126 research institutes argued that EU scientists and plant breeders should be allowed to use gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as a faster and more efficient way of producing food sustainably.

“To classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any specific definition,” said Professor Nick Talbot, director of UK-based The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) – one of the institutions calling for the rethink.

“Gene-editing is quicker and more precise than conventional breeding,” the UK’s John Innes Centre added. “It allows scientists and breeders to target specific genes already in a plant species, to turn genes on and off, for example, to rapidly correct unhelpful mutations, a process that could occur naturally over time. This use of gene editing does not result in the insertion of DNA from other sources in the final plant. In contrast, GM techniques allow genes from other sources to be inserted into a plant’s genome at a random location.”

The open statement said plants that contained genome edits and which did not contain foreign genes were at least as safe as varieties derived from conventional breeding techniques.

However, the ECJ’s ruling in July 2018 meant that crops with even the smallest CRISPR-mediated modification had to conform with GMO provisions, a regulatory threshold that was too complicated and expensive for research institutes and smaller breeder companies to comply with.

“The consequence is that in Europe, precision breeding techniques like CRISPR are becoming the privilege of a select group of large multinational companies to exploit in large cash crops.”

The statement argued that a small revision of the European legislation would harmonise the EU with other nations’ legal framework and enable European scientists, breeders, farmers and producers to use tools that produced high yielding crops while decreasing the use of chemicals and water.