ECJ ruling on new breeding techniques ‘will hold back innovation’

MEPs demand clarity on the move, which has also been criticized by industry and investors, as UK secretary of state Michael Gove identifies gene editing as key for future farming.

MEPs have this week urged the European Commission to clarify the European Court of Justice ruling on new breeding techniques, which has been slammed by European industry and investors.

The ruling states that organisms obtained by mutagenesis plant-breeding techniques are genetically modified organisms and should fall under the EU’s GMO Directive. Attacking it, Dutch MEP Jan Huitema said in a statement it will mean European breeding companies will not be able to use new breeding techniques, which is a huge problem when breeding can be used, for example, to make plants more resistant to drought and climate change.

“I am advocating new legislation specifically for these new techniques. My main argument is that breeding techniques such as CRISPR-C as do differ from traditional genetically modified organisms,” he said. “It is a pity that promising innovations in the field will be rendered unusable by strict rules. It is precisely by means of good regulation that we can create a safe climate in which these techniques can be applied responsibly.”

This was supported by Adam Anders, managing partner at Anterra Capital, who said: “We see a clear distinction between the traditional genetic engineering approaches and new genome editing techniques. Genome editing that does not involve the introduction of DNA from another organism is nearly impossible to detect – the changes are indistinguishable from naturally occurring mutations. The technology can be used to help develop crop varieties that are more resistant to pests and changing climate conditions, while also being environmentally friendly.”

Anders added: “At Anterra we are worried that the current EU approach will hold back cutting-edge research and innovation in this area, a negative outcome for both the agricultural and human health sectors. It will also allow other geographic regions to gain an advantage in this emerging technology area”.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for the European Parliament Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development said in Brussels this week many of its MEP members insisted the ruling must be respected. Some Committee members welcomed the ruling and want EU law on GMOs re-evaluated.

The spokesman said the MEPs have urged the Commission to clarify the situation, with some asking for clarification on which companies are using new breeding techniques and for the body to ensure they won’t have to stop using them.

UK to diverge?

UK secretary of state for agriculture Michael Gove, meanwhile, underlined his strong support for new technologies such as gene editing in his vision of the future of UK agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month. “Gene editing holds the promise of dramatically accelerating the gains we have secured through selective breeding in the past,” he said.

“The ability to give Mother Nature a helping hand by driving the process of evolution at higher speed should allow us to develop plant varieties and crops which are more resistant to disease and pests and less reliant on chemical protection and chemical fertilizer. They will be higher-yielding and more environmentally sustainable,” Gove added.