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Who's afraid of CRISPR?

Jan Deschoolmeester

Today, Wednesday, Feb. 7, the European Parliament approved a bill on the future of NGTs (new genomic technologies such as CRISPR) in agriculture. This is extremely important, because otherwise CRISPR technology would have ended up in the same situation as GMOs, with overly strict regulations completely stifling the technology's potential. 

That would have been a tragedy for everyone concerned about climate change, agriculture and science. CRISPR crops can minimize crop losses due to climate change, by making those crops more heat-resistant, for example.

This can also be done with classical breeding, but that is a process that can take decades. In addition, CRISPR crops can drastically reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers. This leads to fewer pollutants in our rivers and seas, making for cleaner and healthier nature. Finally, CRISPR crops also reduce CO2 emissions because their higher productivity requires less land use, leading to less deforestation.

The adoption of this proposal is thus a fantastic win for science and for sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture. WePlanet played an important role behind the scenes and was able to influence MEPs thanks to the massive support of 37 Nobel laureates and more than 1,500 scientists for our Open Letter, in which we called on MEPs to vote in line with science. But what exactly is CRISPR, and why shouldn't we be afraid of it?

CRISPR: a form of precision breeding

CRISPR is a groundbreaking technique that allows scientists to tinker very precisely with the DNA of plants. 'Precision breeding,' in other words. Imagine working in a Word document and choosing to modify only certain letters. This is also how CRISPR works, but with plants: we safely modify only what is needed in the DNA, without adding species-specific DNA.

In fact, this technique mirrors in a very targeted way what happens randomly in nature. Indeed, in nature, spontaneous mutations can occur in the plant genome, as if haphazardly changing letters in the Word document, whereas with CRISPR you can choose exactly which letters are changed. It opens the door to an agriculture that is stronger and more environmentally friendly, with crops that are better prepared for our future.

Two categories

The bill passed today distinguishes between 2 categories based on the applications of CRISPR crops, each with a difference in regulatory treatment. If only a few characters in the plant genome are altered, then these CRISPR crops fall under category 1, while category 2 covers all CRISPR crops where more than 20 characters are altered, or where foreign DNA is added to the plant genome anyway.

The underlying reasoning is actually quite simple: category 1 refers to plants that could arise naturally or through classical breeding techniques, while category 2 plants, like GMOs, can only arise in a lab. The legislation thus (rightly) removes category 1 from GMO legislation, since the risk is assessed as being as high as conventional crops. For category 2, the existing strict GMO regulations still remain in place.

While there is also a scientific consensus for GMO technology that they are safe for the environment and humans, those concerned about GMOs should realize that the outcome of this vote does not change the GMO regulations themselves, but rather perpetuates the fact that GMO applications of CRISPR technology are still subject to these strict regulations.

Remarkably, less precise breeding techniques, such as mutagenesis, in which thousands of random mutations are caused by exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation, have much less stringent safety assessments. That's the equivalent of a cat walking across your keyboard while your Word file is open, and being satisfied with the random result. So Europe has mostly long used what is perceived as "natural" to guide its safety assessments, rather than the precision of the breeding technique itself.

A tool in the toolbox, regardless of agricultural model

But what about the agricultural model and patents that critics of biotechnology so often talk about? CRISPR is a tool in the toolbox that could be used in both conventional agriculture and organic farming.

CRISPR could even play an important role in organic farming by narrowing the yield gap between conventional and organic cultivation methods, something ex-director Urs Niggli of the Swiss Research Institute for Organic Agriculture also advocates. Nevertheless, even Category 1 CRISPR crops will not be allowed to be used in organic agriculture.

Those worried about patents need not despair either. An amendment was recently voted in the European Environment Committee that "NGT plants, plant material, parts thereof, genetic information and the process characteristics contained therein are not patentable." This ensures that the upcoming vote can focus on what it should really be about: a legal framework around the free use of the technology itself.

Everybody wins

Moreover, both farmers and consumers win from CRISPR. In fact, scientific research suggests that the higher productivity of GMOs yields more profits for farmers, which is also to be expected for CRISPR crops. So it could help the disgruntled farmers who took to the streets last week.

With precision breeding, we can also increase crop diversity, bringing back forgotten primordial varieties to our plates. Moreover, CRISPR can increase food security and even lower costs for consumers. At a time of geopolitical tension, this is more important than ever.

Finally, CRISPR can help us achieve higher yields with less fertilizer, without depending on Russian fertilizer. Thus, a strong position in CRISPR technology not only strengthens our food security, but also our geopolitical position.

On the author:

Jan Deschoolmeester is a bioengineer and co-author of De wereld red je niet met minder (You won't save the world with less). Jan is co-founder and board member of WePlanet Belgium.

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