Support for gene-editing technology growing in the EU

18 Feb 2022

Gene-editing technology and the genetically-modified organisms that result therefrom have long been controversial in Europe. However, recently there has been a growing number of voices supporting the targeted modification of organisms' genomes in an effort to combat climate change and reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture.

There are almost 60 GM crops approved for use in the European Union, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently studying the safety of more GM crops. However, the EU allows each member state to opt out of having to grow GM crops on their territory if they wish, and most have chosen to do so. Today, only one GM crop grown in the EU - mainly in Spain and Portugal - the maize MON 810, manufactured by Monsanto. Four years ago, the European Court of Justice also ruled that precision breeding techniques are classified as GM.

Support for gene-editing technology growing in the EU

However, there are undercurrents of change among top-level politicians and advocates. As Europe strives to achieve its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, many are reassessing the sustainability of agricultural practices. One practice that has come into question is the prohibition on gene-editing.

Last year, the European Commission reviewed these entrenched rules following the publication of a study that the body requested which indicated that Europe’s current legal framework was insufficient in governing the new genomic techniques that have flourished since the body’s original legislation was passed in 2001. Since that initial study, the number of individuals advocating for the introduction of these techniques into European agricultural practices is growing even as the Commission is actively reviewing the rules that it has legislated on this technology.

This month, the wine industry in France joined the conversation when winemaker and union member André Baniol wrote an open letter stating that these new genetic technologies have the potential to provide French vines with resistance to disease and drought while reducing the use of pesticides or the need to replant, both of which can exact a toll on the environment.

Europe’s strict laws are also being shed by the UK following its exit from the union. In January, the UK took its burgeoning interest in introducing gene-editing technology into agriculture a step further and announced it would be removing “unnecessary” limitations to encourage research in gene-editing, according to an announcement by the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Despite the voices in favor of reconsidering the use of gene-editing technology, not all groups are in favor of such a change. In an open letter to the government, several members of the European Parliament called for funding for more robust research into the potential risks and analytical detection of genetically engineered organisms. The MEPs argued that the Commission needed to develop new policies that are more informed but that also prevent genetically-modified organisms from slipping into the European food space undetected.

While the decision on gene-editing technology hangs in the balance, the Commission continues to work on reviewing current legislation on the subject. It is expected to present its proposal in the second quarter of 2023.

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