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EU: embrace NGT's

Jan Deschoolmeester

An important plenary session is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the European Parliament. The parliament will then vote on the future of NGTs (new genomic technologies such as CRISPR) in agriculture. If a significant proportion of MEPs vote against, CRISPR technology will find itself in the same situation as GMOs, with overly strict regulations completely stifling the technology's potential, so that no or hardly any CRISPR products end up on European store shelves.


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


CRISPR: a form of precision breeding

But what exactly is CRISPR? It 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 you choose 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 altering letters in the Word document, whereas with CRISPR it is possible to choose exactly which letters to alter. 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 now on the table distinguishes between 2 categories based on the applications of CRISPR crops, each with different treatment in terms of regulations. If only a few characters in the plant genome are modified, then these CRISPR crops fall under category 1, while category 2 includes all CRISPR crops where more than 20 characters are modified, or where non-species 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 (rightly) tries to exclude category 1 from GMO legislation, since the risk is judged to be as great as classical crops. Therefore, there is also no labeling requirement for this category. 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 be aware that this vote does not change the GMO regulations themselves, but rather perpetuates the fact that GMO applications of CRISPR technology are still covered by 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 a much less stringent safety assessment. 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 the agricultural model

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


Despite all this, even Category 1 CRISPR crops will not be allowed to be used in organic agriculture. Those awake about patents need not worry 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.


Everyone wins

Moreover, both farmers and consumers stand to gain from CRISPR. In fact, scientific research suggests that the higher productivity of GMOs yields greater 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 the diversity of crops, bringing back forgotten ancient varieties to our plates. Moreover, CRISPR could increase food security and even lower costs for consumers. At a time of geopolitical tension, this is more important than ever.


Europe must not become a museum

Indeed, Europe cannot be left behind as countries like China are fully committed to NGTs. The Russian invasion of Ukraine made less fertilizer available, partly because European fertilizer production was drastically reduced due to high gas prices and a significant portion of fertilizer exports are in the hands of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. CRISPR can help us achieve higher yields with less fertilizer yet without depending on Russian fertilizer.

Thus, a strong position in CRISPR technology not only strengthens our food security, but also our geopolitical position.


Science as a compass

Just recently, 37 Nobel laureates and more than 1,500 scientists called for MEPs to vote in line with science on this crucial vote. We cannot risk falling back on policies that stagnate innovation for decades. Instead, MEPs must apply common sense and vote in favor of this legislation, leaving the path open to a more sustainable and productive future for agriculture.

Over de auteur:

Jan Deschoolmeester is bio-ingenieur en co-auteur van het boek De wereld red je niet met minder. Jan is medestichter en bestuurslid van WePlanet Belgium.

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