BioTech: CRISPR Crops Given GMO Status

EU court rules that gene edited crops are genetically modified organisms. What does this mean for the European plant biotech industry?

In 2001, the European Parliament passed the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) Directive enabling EU member states to ban the growth or importation of genetically modified (GM) crops. The reasoning behind this? GM plants are created by inserting foreign DNA into the genome of the organism, usually to provide beneficial characteristics such as resistance to pests, higher yields and improved flavour. However, this process raises concerns amongst some parties that these ‘unnatural’ organisms will negatively impact the environment, as well as pose a threat to human health.

Organisms modified through CRISPR – the revolutionary gene editing technology – have hitherto been exempt from this 2001 legislation. However, in July, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that CRISPR crops are GMOs, thereby subjecting them to the same restrictions and regulations as plants modified with foreign DNA.

GMO or no?

In spite of the EU ruling, advocates of CRISPR argue that this gene editing technology is very different to the techniques used to create GMOs. Instead of adding foreign material to an organism to alter its properties, CRISPR causes gene mutations – mimicking the natural process by which DNA changes over time. CRISPR is a precise and fast method of targeting and editing specific genes in an organism. This offers the agricultural industry an enhanced method of finding new crop variations, cutting research and development time from decades to months. At least, that is, it would have done before the new court judgement.

Whilst they were previously excluded from GMO status and its corresponding rigid regulation within the European Union, gene edited (GE) crops will now be subjected to stringent directives. This will seriously hamper their research and development, leaving the European plant biotech industry in uncertain territory. Billions of euros has already been spent on research into genome editing, by taxpayers as well as industry. The risk now is that this money won’t be converted into products for European farmers. Spare a particular thought for those behind the first ever agricultural trial of a GE crop in Europe, which was scheduled to begin in Britain this year.

Sowing seeds of doubt

Thanks to the new court ruling, taking a GE crop through the European regulatory process will now take years and cost millions of pounds. This will hinder innovation in the biotech industry as well as pricing smaller players out of the running to produce viable new crop variations. It may even threaten the very application of CRISPR to plant research itself, since investors are unlikely to fund crop projects if it is questionable whether or not they will ever actually make it to market.

This could leave the UK and the wider European biotech industry in jeopardy. Other countries – including the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and India – do use genetically modified crops, with a massive 80 per cent of corn, and 94 per cent of soy grown in the US produced using this technology. Whilst environmental groups and anti GMO activists question the ethical status of modified crops, their ability to ensure traits such as tolerance to herbicides, resistance to insects and improved nutritional content will likely become more important than ever in the years to come.

Feeding the world

GE and GM crops could be instrumental in securing our agricultural future as the planet becomes increasingly populated in the next few decades. The world’s population is forecasted to reach 11.2bn by 2100, with increased life expectancies and higher birth rates translating into a serious need for food security. By passing tough rulings on gene editing in Europe, the EU may not just have called the success of European biotech into question, but also the future of the world’s nutrition. In the face of explosive population growth, we will need all the help we can get when it comes to feeding the planet.

In spite of GE’s undisputed potential, with its critics unlikely to ever see it as environmentally safe and ethically acceptable, this debate looks set to rage for years to come.

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