Arable plants from the laboratory

The EU Commission wants to make it easier to approve new techniques such as the Crispr/cas gene scissors. Environmentalists are appalled

Berlin – The new techniques are already in use in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, and now Europe is likely to follow suit: The EU Commission wants to make it easier to approve new genetic engineering techniques such as the Crispr/cas gene scissors in the EU. The current legal framework, which requires strict testing, is not appropriate for this innovative technology, according to a study presented in Brussels on Thursday.

Novel genomic techniques could promote the sustainability of agricultural production, said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. Crops treated accordingly could have better nutritional values, healthier fat content and use fewer pesticides. The study is to be discussed with EU agriculture ministers and with European parliamentarians as early as May, and an impact assessment will be carried out in the coming weeks.

What is at stake?

Novel breeding techniques make it possible to intervene directly in the DNA of a cell, for example with the help of the gene scissors Crsipr/cas. Unwanted traits can be excised and eliminated, while other, desired ones can be added. In the USA, a soybean variety with improved oil qualities and a herbicide-resistant canola are already on the market. Work is also underway on wheat whose gluten protein can be tolerated by people with celiac disease, lettuce with enhanced vitamin C content and fungus-resistant bananas.

Speaking in Berlin on Thursday, Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) said the new molecular biology techniques would make an important contribution to greater resource conservation and global harvest security. In view of climate change, droughts, water shortages and new pests, the opportunities offered by these techniques “must be used responsibly to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, to make agriculture in Europe and worldwide more sustainable, and at the same time to produce enough food for people in the future,” Klöckner said, promoting the new genetic engineering in the field. The German Farmers’ Association also called for new breeding techniques to quickly produce resistant crops.

Environmentalists, organic farmers and German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) have a fundamentally different view. They warn against using the technique. The Munich Environmental Institute criticized that the new techniques perpetuate an agricultural system that relies on environmental destruction and makes farmers dependent on agricultural corporations. “Once genetically modified plants have been released, it is no longer possible to contain their development,” Schulze also points out.

On Tuesday, the minister published a position paper in which she calls for a continued strict approach to new genetic engineering. Because so far, the new technology has had virtually no chance of being used in the EU. This is due to a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice in 2018, which had classified plants resulting from genome editing as genetically modified organisms and subjected them to the strict release rules of EU law.

However, many scientists and seed producers believe this approach is no longer appropriate. They point out that it is not possible to distinguish plants that have been treated with the gene scissors from conventional breeding. Only recently, an international team of researchers including scientists from the universities of Bayreuth and Göttingen spoke out in favor of the use of gene scissors even in organic farming, because the technology enables targeted breeding and contributes to sustainability. The use of genetic engineering is generally frowned upon in organic farming.

Schulze, on the other hand, warns of the consequences of the new technology. In the USA, for example, hornless cattle were bred using genetic engineering, without realizing that they had at the same time had anti-obiotic resistance genes introduced unnoticed. The SPD minister calls for a traceable supply chain and wants to see independent risk research expanded. In addition, she says, further work is needed on methods that can be used to prove the use of genome editing.

She is not alone in this: 94 associations from agriculture and the food industry, environmental protection and animal welfare, as well as the churches, pleaded in a joint paper on Wednesday for a continuation of the strong precautionary principle and freedom of choice for citizens. This also includes labeling of genetically modified products. Because many citizens in this country have reservations about the use of genetic engineering. Already 60 percent of milk and poultry meat and 70 percent of eggs are produced GM-free – voluntarily and certified at their own expense. The retail trade now makes more than twelve billion euros a year from “non-GMO” foods. Heike Jahberg

Field trial. In Iowa, plants treated with the Crispr/cas gene scissors are already in the field. In the EU, research is still being carried out in the laboratory. Crispr/cas makes it possible to selectively remove DNA from a cell.