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Uncertain future: Will Europe’s Green Deal encourage or cripple crop gene-editing innovation? – Genetic Literacy Project

Posted: February 2, 2021 at 7:48 am

The EU Green Deal and its Farm-to-Fork and Biodiversity Strategies stipulate ambitious policy objectives that will fundamentally impact agricultural businesses and value chains. Are these objectives realistic? And how do they fit with the EUs policies on food security, the internal market, international trade and multilateral economic agreements? As significant conflicts of goals become apparent, the discussion on expectations, preconditions and consequences is now underway.

The Farm to Fork Strategy concretely foresees a reduction of pesticide and fertilizer use of 50% and 20% by 2030, respectively. In addition, 25% of EUs agricultural land is supposed to be put under organic farming conditions, which generally means a reduction in productivity. Unfortunately, the strategy is less concrete about the important role of innovation in general and plant breeding innovation specifically to compensate for productivity losses and to contribute to a more sustainable agriculture.

On July 25, 2018 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) published its ruling on mutagenesis breeding, including targeted genome editing techniques. This ruling subjected new tools like CRISPR Cas-9 to the EUs strict rules and requirements for GMOs, and with that effectively prohibited European plant breeders and farmers from utilizing these powerful technologies. These regulatory obstacles are not based on evidence showing that genome editing poses a risk to human health or the environment, but rather on political interference in the regulatory approval process. The COVID pandemic made this abundantly clear. In July 2020, for example, the EU suspended some of its excessive genetic engineering rules to facilitate the development of COVID vaccines, and has since celebrated the approval of these important drugs while trying to prevent the use of biotechnology in agriculture.

Since the discovery of the laws of genetics by Gregory Mendel in 1866, plant breeders have continuously integrated the latest plant biology innovations into their toolbox to develop enhanced crops that help farmers sustainably grow the food we all depend on.

Europes seed sector, technology developers and public researchers have always been important actors in this evolving effort and remain global leaders in developing improved plant breeding methods. They work tirelessly to provide farmers with crop varieties that fit the needs of a highly productive and sustainable agriculture system and meet the exacting demands of consumers. It is no secret that these experts understand the value of new breeding techniques (NBTs) like CRISPR and want to employ them.

Contrary to the claim of some environmental groups that genome editing provides new avenues of control through modifying specific plant traits, most notably insect and herbicide resistance, industrial applications of this sort are only one aspect of NBT research, and a minor one at that. Our recent survey of 62 private plant breeding companies, 90% of which are small and medium size firms (SMEs), confirms that EU plant breeders are able and willing to use these technologies to develop a wide range of crop species and traits for farmers. From grape vine to wheat, NBTs can generate innovation to protect Europes traditional crops from pests and diseases and other threats posed by climate change.

Independent of their size, many companies are already using NBTs in their R&D pipelines for technology development, gene discovery and to produce improved plant varieties. These activities cover a wide range of agricultural and horticultural cropsfrom the so-called cash crops like maize and soybean to minor crops like pulses, forage crops and chicoryand span a wide diversity of characteristics, including yield, plant architecture, disease and pest resistance, food-quality traits and abiotic stresses like drought and heat.

Uncertain future: Will Europe's Green Deal encourage or cripple crop gene-editing innovation? - Genetic Literacy Project

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