Scientific community defeated by green groups in European court ruling on gene edited crops

By Mark Lynas

July 26, 2018

European plant scientists have responded with anger to yesterday’s European Court of Justice ruling that puts new gene edited crops in the same category as GMOs.

The ruling is dependent on a legalistic interpretation of a 17-year-old European Union directive which excluded random radiation or chemical mutagenesis from the definition of GMO.

This means that Europe now faces the bizarre situation of subjecting new plant varieties produced by precise gene editing to zealous and expensive regulation, while allowing hit-and-miss radiation mutagenesis to continue to get a free pass.

The ruling also takes no account of scientifically demonstrable risk. Instead, it privileges “a long history of safe use” for random mutagenesis over any scientific evidence of possible harm for precise gene edited organisms.

The decision means that gene-edited crops will de facto be banned for cultivation in Europe, as most member states have declared that GMOs are prohibited.

Only one genetically modified food crop, an insect-resistant corn, has ever been approved in the EU, although millions of tonnes of GM commodities grown elsewhere are imported each year, mainly for animal feed.

European scientists were aghast at the decision. “The ruling of the European Court of Justice to regulate new breeding techniques including gene editing techniques like CRISPR as GMOs is the deathblow for plant biotech in Europe,” said Dr. Sarah Schmidt at the Institute for Molecular Physiology, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf.

She added: “The costs of fulfilling regulatory science and administration to obtain approval for GMO crops are around $35 million.  Only the largest agribusinesses can afford these costs.  With today’s court ruling, universities, start-ups and not-for-profits that might produce innovative solutions to tackle world hunger and crop adaption to climate change are excluded from the breeding process.”

Schmidt also said she was “shocked” at the absurdity underlying the decision. “New breeding techniques like gene editing enable scientists to make precise, directed changes to the existing crop’s genome.  So precise that gene-edited crops could become indistinguishable from naturally occurring crop variants.

“Yet, the court considers these techniques not as safe, while it considers treatment with a carcinogenic chemical or ionizing radiation (conventional breeding techniques) that induce hundreds and thousands of undirected changes in the DNA as safe.”

Huw Jones, professor of translational genomics for plant breeding at Aberystwyth University, said he was “shocked and saddened” at the court’s decision, which he said would “will stifle crop genetic research and innovation in the EU.”

Professor Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at the United Kingdom’s Rothamsted Research institute, warned that “the decision could set ag biotech in Europe back another 20 years” and could lead to a brain drain. “Young scientists interested in ag biotech are likely to move to places where common sense and scientific evidence prevail.”

The French Association of Plant Biotechnology, comprising a large number of scientists from both public and private research, said the decision was “astonishing” and warned of “very dark years for the future of European agriculture,” thanks to the ruling.

As the association pointed out: “If the opinion of the European Court of Justice were followed by the EU decision-making bodies in this area, it would result in a de facto ban in the EU of these new technologies as already existing for genetically modified plants.”

Professor Maurice Moloney, former head of Rothamsted and now CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Canada, called the court’s ruling “logically absurd” in that “it asserts that modern techniques with high precision are somehow more risky than random mutagenesis which is replete with unknown changes in the genome.”

Moloney added that, “This is a real step backwards for the EU, for innovation and in the wider context for global food security.  It will have the consequence of further disrupting world trade in agricultural products at a critical time for world trading policy.  I am sure it is also a major blow to biological research throughout the EU.”

Sophien Kamoun, senior group leader and professor at the Sainsbury Laboratory, called the decision “a sad day for European plant science.  This ruling closes the door to many beneficial genetic modifications such as breeding of disease-resistant plants that require much less pesticide input,” he said.

“Condolences to EU colleagues and farmers that can’t benefit from the best technology,” tweeted Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida who has campaigned in favor of biotechnology.

“Back to the dark ages in Europe,” replied Achim Dobermann, director of Rothamsted Institute, a plant science research institute which has a gene-edited Camelinaoilseed crop expressing higher levels of healthy oleic acid currently in a field trial.

Anti-GMO groups were jubilant at the decision, and two UK-based activist groups — GM Freeze and GeneWatch UK — immediately demanded that Rothamsted’s field trial be torn out of the ground because it is now classified as a GMO.

Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, wrote to the UK’s environment secretary demanding that “in the light of today’s judgment, the trial is clearly unlawful and should cease immediately.”

Speaking for the Green/EFA group in the European Parliament, Bart Staes MEP said: “Today’s ruling is a victory for food safety and the environment. Just because the industry has come up with new ways to modify organisms does not mean that these techniques should be exempt from existing EU standards on GMOs.”

He added: “Recent scientific studies show that these new techniques might not be as accurate as the industry claims them to be. That’s why it’s essential that they come under the same labelling requirements and impact assessments as existing GMOs. These new patented organisms may have unintended effects, as well as the potential to increase our dependence on the agri-chemical industry, and therefore must be stringently monitored by the European Food Safety Authority for any risks to human, animal and environmental health.”

Friends of the Earth applauded the decision. Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “These new ‘GMO 2.0’ genetic engineering techniques must be fully tested before they are let out in the countryside and into our food. We welcome this landmark ruling which defeats the biotech industry’s latest attempt to push unwanted genetically-modified products onto our fields and plates.”

Greenpeace also welcomed the court ruling. Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “The Court makes it crystal clear that plants and animals derived from gene editing are subject to the same safety and labelling requirements as other GM organisms. These requirements exist to prevent harm and inform consumers about the food they eat.”

She added: “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side effects. The European Commission and European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labelled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”

However, the fact that the green groups have scored a victory against the scientific community may come back to haunt them as they claim the mantle of scientific probity when campaigning on issues such as climate change.

It risks putting the green groups — and by extension the whole European Union — back in the category of “anti-science,” at least in regard to de-facto bans on the latest innovations being pursued by plant scientists.

As Professor Nick Talbot, deputy vice chancellor and professor of molecular genetics at the University of Exeter, put it: “By adopting the precautionary principle in such a misguided and short-sighted way, Europe is again being denied the opportunity to innovate and lead in the development of beneficial, environmentally-friendly agriculture for the next century.”