When the European Commission published a long-awaited report on new genomic techniques (NGT) on 29 April, its conclusions caused a stir. The commission found that NGTs (which can alter the genetic makeup of organisms in a more controlled and targeted way than classic genetic modification) could contribute to the “resilience and sustainability” of future agriculture, by making plants “more resistant to diseases and environmental conditions or climate change”, improving their agronomic or nutritional traits, reducing the use of pesticides; and that current European rules on GMOs create excessive barriers to their use and should be revised.
But those who bothered to read the whole report, annexes included, found other interesting information. Take for example a questionnaire on NGTs with contributions from all EU member states. Question number 11 reads: “Could NGT-related research bring opportunities/benefits to science, to society and to the agri-food, medicinal or industrial sector?”. The question is so generic that an affirmative answer seems almost guaranteed. France, a country that cannot be considered GM-friendly, stressed that innovation is a key driver of competitiveness, that genomic knowledge is useful also for conventional breeding, and NGTs could be employed to develop valuable products. Only two out of 27 countries checked the no option. Cyprus – that provided no explanation – and Italy. The Ministry for the Environment, responding in April 2020, argued that “we cannot provide concrete examples or data to support an affirmative answer”. The renamed Ministry for Ecologic Transition, has not responded to Nature Italy’s requests for comments on the questionnaire.
Italy is one of the European countries where research has suffered the most from opposition to GMOs in the last 20 years. The zealous interpretation of the EU directive regulating release of GMOs into the environment, together with recurring delays in the application of these rules, have effectively halted field trials.
Scientists now hope that the gene editing system CRISPR/Cas and other tools can bring a change, especially after the commission’s report. “The arrival of new technologies for site-specific editing is our best chance for a fresh start in the regulatory arena and in the public debate”, says Chiara Tonelli, a plant geneticist and professor at Università di Milano.
“Italian agriculture is experiencing a number of phytosanitary emergencies including Xylella in olive trees and Sharka in peach trees,” says Bruno Mezzetti, a specialist in the RNA interference technique at Marche Polytechnic University. “NGTs are needed to meet the goal of a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides as recommended in the European Green Deal”, Mezzetti adds, referring to the EU’s flagship plan to make economy sustainable.
Starting open field trials again would be a key step, but Italy doesn’t have any underway, and the signals coming from national authorities are not encouraging. The current government has not taken an official stance yet.
New genomic techniques encompass a variety of methods, mainly developed over the last two decades, the most prominent of which are based on the CRISPR-Cas technology. Unlike some of the genetic modification techniques developed in the past century, they do not necessarily entail transferring genetic material from one organism to another. But, as a consequence of the long period of uncertainty on their regulatory status, field trials on plants modified through NGTs are still scarce in all of Europe. A database by the Joint Research Center (JRC) enlists approved field trials for CRISPR-edited tobacco (Spain), maize (Belgium), potato (Sweden), aspen (Sweden). A field trial with potatoes was expected to start in the Netherlands in 2021, according to the annex to the EC report, and Paris informed the EC that an oilseed crop edited in France was being tested in the United Kingdom.
Red tape and shortage of funds discourage Italian researchers working on NGTs. According to the JRC database, the latest trial was approved in 2004 in Italy, before the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 technology. No Italian group has ever applied to release genome-edited plants into the environment for research purposes under the GM directive 2001/18. “This is not surprising considering what happened during the last two decades. Agricultural genetics was quite lively in Italy but has badly suffered the open hostility of several ministers and the influence of politics over technical committees,” says Roberto Defez, a soil microbiologist at the National Research Council in Naples.
“We edited rice to change the flowering time with CRISPR/Cas9 and we were interested in field testing,” says Vittoria Brambilla, of the University of Milan. “In 2017 we asked the ministry of the environment about the procedures to follow, but then we gave up.” Brambilla, like many others, was particularly discouraged by a 2018 ruling of the European Court of Justice, which equated genome editing with GMOs, making it clear that the same authorisation procedures would apply to new and old technologies alike.
The result is that, despite investing considerable resources on genomic research on crop species, Italy is not applying its findings in the field. According to another JRC database that lists R&D projects on NGTs both in agriculture and medicine, Italy has currently eight early-stage projects on plants, and only one project at an advanced R&D stage: an eggplant edited for improved storage, resulting from an Italian-Spanish collaboration. Germany, by comparison, has 37 projects, nine at an advanced stage.
A cornerstone of Italian research in plant genome editing is the Biotech project, funded by the Ministry of agriculture with €6 million and coordinated by the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA). It will end in August 2022, and its results are still mostly unpublished. It covers wheat, tomatoes, vines, peach trees, citruses and other crops. “The project is funding about 15 new research groups,” says the coordinator Luigi Cattivelli from the CREA Research centre for genomics and bioinformatics. “A third of them have edited plants that are currently under phenotypic evaluation, both vegetables and cereals. We expect them to have improved disease resistance and yield potential”.
Winemaking could benefit from gene editing too, says Sara Zenoni, a researcher at the University of Verona and co-founder of the spin-off EdiVite. Her group edits national and international wine varieties to make them more resistant, and she expects to be ready for field tests in three years.
It takes some time before researchers can even consider applying for field trials. If and when the EU regulatory framework is updated, as suggested by the commission’s report, scientists expect that only edited plants that are free from foreign DNA will enjoy a regulatory advantage over transgenic GMOs. Therefore, researchers must remove the genes and regulatory elements introduced to make the CRISPR system work, by crossing edited plants with wild-type plants and selecting the descendants that only contain the desired mutation. This process usually takes one generation, but time depends on the species.
The need for better communication
Outside the research world, attitudes are mixed. Opposition to genetic methods is still strong among organic farming associations, but conventional farmers are increasingly open to innovative biotechnologies. Italian consumers are among the least informed in Europe according to the latest Eurobarometer survey. In 2019 only 8% of them had heard about genome editing (the EU average is 21%, with Finland reaching 62%). Only 13% of Italians were concerned about plant diseases (versus EU average of 45%), while 38% worried about pesticide residues in food (65% in EU) – two of the problems that researchers working on NGTs aim to tackle.
The need for better communication is confirmed by a study presented on 10 June at the annual Conference of the Italian Association of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Researchers from CREA administered an internet survey to more 500 students from 15 universities during the year 2019-2020, finding out that 32% had heard about genome editing. “Our analysis focuses on millennials to explore a possible generational shift in attitude toward biotechnology”, says CREA agricultural economist, Annalisa Zezza. After evaluating self-perceived and actual knowledge of genetic modification, the researchers assessed how negative attitudes towards genome editing changed after watching a 5 minutes video about the differences between old and new genomic techniques. The most interesting result, Zezza explains, is that it is easier to improve trust in the food safety aspects of NGTs than in their environmental impact, a finding that, if confirmed in other age groups, may help design information campaigns to accompany agriculture research.
“The European Commission has opened a door,” says Mario Pezzotti from the Edmund Mach Foundation of San Michele all’Adige and Università di Verona. “This is an opportunity for Italian politicians to find a way out of the impasse”.