EU ruling could change the way gene-editing technology is regulated

In a landmark decision, which puts an end to over ten years of debate in Europe, the EU high court has ruled that plants and animals that are created using gene-editing technology should be treated and regulated as genetically modified. There have been disputes over the years as to what should be considered GM foods. This is a major victory for environmental groups; but, for Europe’s biotech industry and scientists, who have invested millions in the technology, this is seen as a major blow.

EU judges said in the ruling: “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs [genetically modified organisms] … It follows that those organisms come, in principle, within the scope of the GMO directive and are subject to the obligations laid down [therein].”

The potential side effects of technology like Crispr-Cas9 has been highlighted in a recent study, which was published in Nature last week. It found that these techniques can cause greater genetic distortions than previously thought, and that there is a potential for “pathogenic consequences”. French trade union Confédération Paysanne, who brought the case to the court, also argued that vitro mutagenesis techniques could pose a health risk.

For years, scientists in EU countries have been able to take advantage of a legal “grey area” when it comes to trialling gene editing in crops. Now, because of this ruling, governments will be required to revoke the permission for these trials until the appropriate precautions have been taken. Cibus, a US based biotech firm, is the first company to try and bypass the EU decision making process. According to documents that were released, the firm recently tried to bring its herbicide-resistant ODM oilseed rape to the EU market.

Prof Johnathan Napier, leader of the UK’s field trials of Crispr-edited plants at Rothamsted Research, criticised the ruling, claiming that it’s “a backward step, not progress.” He noted: “This is a very disappointing outcome, and one that will hinder European innovation, impact and scientific advance. The classification of genome-edited organisms as falling under the GMO directive could slam the door shut on this revolutionary technology.”

Beat Späth, the green director of EuropaBio, which represents companies like Dow, Dupont and Monsanto, also argued: “Billions of euros have been spent on research and development into genome editing, by taxpayers and industry alike. The big risk is that all this money will now not be translated into products for Europe’s farmers.”

But, Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director, said: “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible. Particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side effects. The European commission and European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labelled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”


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