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Scientists urge new EU rules on gene editing crops

The European Commission needs to quickly propose new rules for crops created by modern targeted plant breeding techniques such as Crispr –Cas9 genome editing, or face a withering of Europe’s agricultural research base.

The warning comes from the German Bioeconomy Council (BEC), a panel of 17 researchers who advise the German government, and is widely echoed by plant researchers around the continent.

There was a similar message from 33 research institution, universities and plant breeders in the U.K last week in an open letter to agriculture minister and arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, asking for a round-table meeting involving all stakeholder to agree a clear way forward on research and future use of new plant breeding technologies. Gove has previously indicated he would be prepared to lift EU restrictions on genetically modified crops and farm animals, as part of a “green Brexit.”

The moves follow a surprise ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in July, which said that new products created by Crispr and similar techniques that offer a precision tool for editing a plant’s genetic code, must go through the same time-consuming approval process prescribed under 2001 EU legislation for older genetic modification techniques.

“In its current form, EU genetic engineering legislation cannot do justice to the opportunities and challenges of [Crispr] technologies,” BEC said.

Plant breeders working with Crispr say the technique can speed development of a new generation of hardier, more productive, more nutritious food crops, improving traits such as pest, salinity and drought resistance, or boosting nutritional content.

They warn that the ECJ ruling could paralyse funding and force an exodus of talent from Europe to places where there are not the same onerous restrictions. The US announced in March it has no plans to regulate genome editing when used to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those bred through traditional breeding methods. China has made a similar announcement.

Small companies locked out

The ruling is “devastating” to smaller companies, which will need to invest big money to meet the regulatory requirements for bringing a GMO crop on the market in Europe, said Holger Puchta, plant biochemist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. “Only global international players will be able to do so,” he said.

If the ruling had been different, “Big funders and companies would of course have invested a lot in developing new crop varieties. Now, they are unlikely to do it,” said Stefan Jansson, plant biochemist at Umeå University in Sweden. “European taxpayers will [also] be hesitant to fund research that only will strengthen agriculture in other parts of the world.”

Scientists say making Crispr techniques subject to laws developed for older genetic modification techniques which involve introducing genes from other species, imposes expensive and risky hurdles. Even when crops pass strict regulatory criteria, EU countries can ban them.

Growing a GMO plant outside of the lab would cost about €5,000, “and take one week of my time to get the bureaucracy right,” Jansson said. “If we would get the permit, the costs associated with the experiment would also increase very much.” All this is in Sweden, “which is the most liberal of all EU countries in this respect,” he added.

Subjecting gene editing research to GMO regulations will threaten funding too, scientists said.

Calls in the forthcoming EU research programme Horizon Europe are likely to “become even more restricted for the use of this technology,” said Johnathan Napier, a crop geneticist at the Rothamsted agricultural research centre in the UK.

Napier’s institute was one of 33 signatories of last week’s letter to the UK government calling for clarity on genome editing following the ECJ ruling. “We feel there are significant questions that must be addressed urgently by government if the UK is to retain its strength in plant genetics,” the letter said.

PhD students, meanwhile, are finding that industry positions in the field in Europe are in short supply, said Puchta. “This is a fatal development for the academic labs in Europe too which are in urgent need of these students,” he said.

Source: Science Business