European politicians must put greater trust in plant scientists

Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics, Barcelona, Spain.

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Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics, Barcelona, Spain.

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The latest ruling by the European Court of Justice requires that crops created using gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR must go through the same lengthy approval process as conventional genetically modified (GM) plants (see Nature 560, 16; 2018). This has surprised many scientists, who are concerned that it will complicate promising applications of gene editing.

The court took existing legislation into account in arriving at its decision, but the situation has changed greatly since the first directives on GM organisms in 1990. Hundreds of millions of hectares have been planted worldwide with GM crops, providing extensive experience with such products. And techniques developed since could potentially solve important questions in biology and agriculture.

The court concluded that the European legislation considers the use of recombinant-DNA techniques in gene editing as sufficient grounds for classifying genome-edited plants as genetically modified. This could result in a costly approval process and might generate problems with unregulated genome-edited products imported from countries such as the United States.

One possibility would be to alter the legislation, but this could be difficult given current European politics. Another would be to revisit the European directives issued since 1990, which were based on a case-by-case scientific analysis of GM plants.

As members of the European Food Safety Authority’s panel on GM organisms since its inception, we have witnessed a mounting distrust of scientific assessments. That has manifested with the approval of rules that demand a rigid analysis of GM plants. We need to reverse this trend, for example by acknowledging that approval of genome-edited plants calls for much less data than classic GM organisms, and by commanding greater respect for the work of scientific panels. This would promote scientifically sound risk analysis while complying with existing directives.

Nature 561, 33 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06129-2
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