The summer of 2018 brought good and bad news for plant breeding science. While a thirteen-year international endeavour to map the wheat genome was concluding, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that crops obtained by gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas should be regulated under the EU’s GMO regime.
Bread wheat is the world’s most widely grown crop, accounting for almost 20% of the total calories and protein consumed by humans. But growing it comes with challenges: research shows that every 1°C increase in global temperature leads to an average 5% decline in wheat yields. Obtaining a high-quality sequence of its genome was important to enable plant breeders to identify more rapidly the genes that could make wheat resistant to the consequences of climate change, amongst other challenges.
Mapping the wheat genome has been a massive undertaking because of its enormous size – more than five times larger than the human genome. But in August this year, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) – a team of 200 scientists – succeeded in that mission and published the genome sequence for everyone to access.
This will make it easier for plant breeders to develop hardier varieties that are not only adapted to climate change but are also resistant to pests and diseases and require fewer pesticides. Further, breeders could develop gluten-free varieties to accommodate new diet preferences. Gene editing would play an important role.
But alas, not in Europe.
The IWGSC perhaps did not expect that the opportunities unlocked by their work would be obviated by a single court decision. By classifying as GMOs organisms developed by newer forms of mutagenesis, the CJEU has instituted a de facto ban on the cultivation of gene-edited crops. Europe’s trading partners have allowed for some of the gene editing techniques and exciting crops are already emerging – non-browning potatoes and mushrooms; oil crops with healthier oils; and even ryegrass that needs to be cut less frequently. Sadly, these won’t be grown in Europe.
Some might be imported to the EU following the GMO imports process, but not without its challenges. Several NGOs insist that GMO-labelling of food containing imported gene-edited crops will, in their words, provide consumer choice. However, discerning and labelling them is not only difficult but also provides no additional protection to consumers. Most gene editing methods induce changes that can also occur in nature, which makes tracing altered genetic material near impossible unless seed companies voluntarily label their products.
The judgment may follow the logic of law, but the law does not follow the logic of science. It is a legal interpretation of a Directive dating back to 2001 that served to regulate existing techniques. We are now faced with the paradox that pre-2001 methods – like chemically- or radiation-induced random genetic mutations – are exempt from the Directive, while more recent and precise methods such as CRISPR-Cas are not as they lack a history of long use. Gene editing may not have been around as long as conventional mutagenesis, but it has been researched for decades. A political initiative must follow to signal to European researchers and plant breeders that the EU does not want to remain stuck in the year 2001.
The EU’s inability to keep up with science in gene editing could negatively impact EU’s contribution to R&D investments in Africa. Juncker talked at length about the EU’s reciprocal commitments to the continent in his recent State of the Union address. But if European research into plant breeding is stopped in its tracks, the EU will not be able to develop the kinds of relationship Juncker talks about, boosting trade in the all-important African agriculture sector. The EU’s place will be taken by the likes of the US and China.
So instead of wondering whether we should use the advances of genomics to gene-edit crops, we should be asking ourselves how to do it. What are the most beneficial applications of genomics we should consider at the national, European, and global level? Now that we have mapped the wheat genome, shouldn’t we focus resources on adapting the crop to gluten-free, protein-rich diets, and on developing varieties that can also grow in drier conditions in sub-Saharan Africa?
Unless the GMO Directive changes, European researchers and plant breeders won’t be a part of that discussion. Given the widespread prejudice against GMOs in Europe, the current status of gene editing misleads the public into thinking that techniques such as CRISPR-Cas are inherently bad. European citizens are denied the opportunity to deliberate the merits of the technology.
But there is an opportunity now to make the right changes in the next EU legislative term. National policymakers should stop looking at the European Commission for a solution, but claim back their power to decide on the future of European agriculture – not in terms of CAP money, but of higher yields, higher profits and resilient and safe crops. The industry should not miss the chance to reinvigorate this discussion.
Mariana Varbanova, Director at FTI Consulting Belgium.
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