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Seeds of change

The European Union faces a fresh battle over next-generation plant-breeding techniques.

The US plant-breeding company Cibus is proudly rolling out its first crop created with an innovative precision gene-editing technology: herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape.

The crop will be planted in the United States this spring and the firm already has authorization to cultivate it in Canada. The technology switches just a few nucleotides in a plant’s DNA; the company’s webpage points out that because it works without integrating foreign genetic material, the resulting plants cannot be stigmatized as transgenic. They will, it optimistically declares, “be globally acceptable”.

Cibus, based in San Diego, California, hopes that plants imbued in this way with traits that improve their robustness or nutritional value will also find favour in the European Union (EU), where many countries vehemently oppose genetically modified (GM) crops created by transfer of specific foreign genes.

That hope has logic on its side, and it is not misplaced. In February, authorities in GM-hostile Germany told Cibus that they would not consider products created by gene editing as GM, but as products of conventional plant breeding. However, with new battle lines already being drawn, broader approval and acceptance are unlikely to be so simple.

The first battle for GM crops in Europe is currently drawing to an unsatisfactory close. EU legislation from 2001 dictates that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) must carry out a scientific risk assessment of any GM strain submitted for authorization. Member states must then vote on whether to pass it, obliging all of them to permit the crop’s cultivation if it is approved.

But these votes have almost never yielded the required majority for or against any strain given the EFSA green light. And the European Commission has never dared to exercise its right to enforce a positive decision in cases of impasse. Instead, it has proposed new rules, which came into force last week, allowing EU member states to opt out of a requirement to allow cultivation on non-scientific grounds.

“ The European Commission is again playing for time. ”

Although it is smart politics, the rule will not be enough to break through the authorization impasse, because all nations must still vote, and a qualified majority must be reached. So, in the next few weeks, the commission will propose further legislation that is likely to allow member states to opt out of the authorization process too. This could finally get the system going again, and give GM-friendly countries such as Spain a wider range of GM crops to choose from.

Meanwhile, science has moved on. Plants without foreign genes can now be created with a variety of methods and technologies that precisely tweak or change the regulation of a native gene. Such plants should reassure anti-GM lobbies that criticize the moral right of scientists to ‘play God’, and the alleged instability of foreign genes. But environmental groups such as Greenpeace seem far from convinced. In January, several groups wrote an open letter to the commission insisting that new methods that change DNA structure or interfere with gene regulation in any way should also be subject to the EU’s tight GM regulations. They argue that the precautionary principle should continue to apply — and that because of the enhanced abilities of the technologies, the safety bar should in fact be raised.

The commission is again playing for time. In 2007, it appointed an expert panel to advise it on the ever-expanding plant-breeding toolbox. The panel’s report was submitted in 2012 but never published. The commission now says that it has set in motion a “thorough legal analysis” of the definition of ‘GM organisms’ in its own legislation, and of the criteria for excluding certain technologies. The conclusions of the analysis, it warns, “cannot be anticipated”.

Most plant scientists consider the new tools to be helpful extensions to normal plant-breeding practice. In many cases, they say, the plant products are indistinguishable from the original plants and are intrinsically even safer than GM plants. Two years ago, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, an umbrella group for national academies in Europe, argued that the time had come for regulators to abandon their fixation on plant technologies and instead carry out risk assessments on the individual plant products. In February, the European Plant Science Organisation, an independent body representing more than 220 research institutes and universities from 28 European countries, as well as Australia, Japan and New Zealand, reiterated the message.

Late last month, the Leopoldina, Germany’s national academy of sciences, published a similar position paper in the hope of influencing its government, as the country deliberates anew the legal environment of its GM regulations. Both Germany and the commission are watching and waiting. In their letter to Cibus, the German authorities noted that their statement of readiness to consider products of gene editing as non-GM would be invalidated if the European Commission were finally to decide otherwise.

As Europe’s first battle on GM staggers to an uneasy truce, a second — and perhaps more important one — is approaching.

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Room for growth 2014-Dec-10

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A new dawn for transgenic crops in Europe? 2010-Mar-09

Europe's GM quandary 2009-Feb-25

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Cibus

Leopoldina statement (in German)

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Seeds of change. Nature 520, 131–132 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/520131b

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