EU vs GMOs—What Impact Will the New Law Have?
Should food produced by a series of new biotechnology breeding techniques be considered as genetically modified organisms? The European Union’s top court says „yes“, handing a major win to environmentalists. The decision comes as a surprise to the biotech industry, which had already been facing much stricter regulations in the EU than in the United States.
What Does It All Mean?
First we need to distinguish the difference between the ‚old‘ or classical form of genetic engineering and this „new“ form that we are talking about in this article. The traditional gene editing process meant that bio-engineers introduced genes from another species, usually bacteria, into the genome of, for instance, a corn plant to make it more resistant to fungi. The resulting new plant is called transgenesis because it contains patrimony from other organisms. With the new form of genetic engineering, the so-called CRISPR-Cas9 method, this is not needed anymore. It is now possible to engineer the DNA without inserting foreign genes into the plant. This kind of gene editing technique is very hard to detect, as you can imagine. And if you can’t detect genetic engineering—there is no genetic engineering; at least that is what you can boil it down to according to USDA’s ruling on that matter. In the US, a corn crop created with this CRISPR-Cas9 method it is not been regulated under the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, but is seen as an ordinary cultured plant.
In this video you find an explanation to what exactly is being done in this process, regarding the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing:
Higher yielding plants, less water consumption, more resistant to diseases and fungi—all of this is possible already. But there is more: fruits that never turn brown and therefore always look great in the supermarket, a dream come true to every salesperson in the world.
Europe Shocks the Industry
All of this sounds great, but there is a downside of course. There is no way of knowing what organisms, which are edited in this way, can do to the environment in the years to come. This is the same problem that the classical form of genetic engineering is facing. Unlike in the US, the European Union’s top court ruled that products created by using this new technique count as GMOs and therefore fall under the EU’s strict GMO regulations. (You can find the judgement of the court by clicking this link ») This means special safety checks and labeling restrictions, which will in return make it a lot more costly to operate a CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing program; so only the big players will be able to afford running programs like this and keep them in check.
However, many scientists see CRISPR-Cas9 as a modern breeding method, perhaps even the most biologically compatible due to its precision. Treatments with chemicals or X-rays, which have been common practice for decades, ultimately do nothing else in a more brute and inaccurate way: they trigger mutations that can be useful or sometimes harmful. Critical voices, such as Detlef Weigel, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tuebingen, Germany, say that the ruling was a „sad day for European science“. In a statement he gave to the Washington Post on this topic, he said that the court “followed arguments that are of the same quality as those who deny climate change”.
As with all decisions on a scale like this, there is always a case for and against it. Since the US has allowed it anyway, we will see which decision was the right one in the future.