European scientists are again calling for a change in European legislation on GMOs

Illustrational photo: EU-SAGE
Friday 24 July 2020, 8:00 – Text: Martina Šaradínová

European scientists are again calling for a change in European legislation on GMOs, which they say is essential for the further development of sustainable agriculture, ensuring sufficient food for a growing population and protecting the environment. The statement has been issued by the European Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE) on the second anniversary of a controversial ruling by the EU Court of Justice that plants obtained using modern genome editing methods are genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The call was also joined by the management of Centre of the Region Haná for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research (CRH), which brings together research teams from the Faculty of Science of Palacký University and Olomouc facilities of the Institute of Experimental Botany of the AS CR and the Crop Research Institute.

The ruling of EU Court of Justice from July 25, 2018 means that even plants obtained via methods of precision breeding using genome editing by CRISPR are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). "This means that even crops with the smallest genome modifications, which can occur spontaneously in nature, are subject to restrictive European regulations, which practically prohibit these modifications," warns Jaroslav Doležel, scientific director of CRH and head of the Olomouc Institute of Experimental Botany of the Academy of Sciences.

European scientists are therefore recommending to the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission a revision of the existing GMO directives, as they run counter to current scientific knowledge on plant genome editing.

"In addition, genome modifications leading to changes that may also occur spontaneously in nature and which do not introduce foreign DNA should be excluded from the application of GMO legislation," said the EU-SAGE statement, which brings together members from 132 European researchers, institutions and associations. Targeted genome editing, on the other hand, is considered by researchers to be a suitable tool for breeding crops with sufficient yields that will be resistant to climate change, be less dependent on pesticides and fertilizers, and can have health benefits for consumers. The benefits of targeted genome editing have already been described in expert literature. New breeding technologies have contributed, for example, to the development of powdery mildew-resistant wheat, grapevine resistant to fungal diseases, the breeding of low-gluten or high-fiber wheat and many other applications. The full text of the open statement is available here.

According to scientists, current EU regulations on GMOs are in fierce contrast with the growing area of land on which GMOs are grown in the world and with the growing number of countries where new crop varieties obtained through genome editing are not regulated. "The current situation is damaging for EU member countries. While restrictions apply in Europe, genome editing is used in other parts of the world. This significantly reduces our competitiveness and hinders us in breeding economically important crops with the necessary properties, such as higher resistance to drought or pests and diseases. This may have a major impact on European economy, the environment and the health of the population in the future," said CRH Director Ivo Frébort, who has been drawing attention to these risks for a long time. The European Federation of Biotechnology, with its Regional branch office being CRH, has also joined the statement.

"We fully support the statement, which is why we have published it on the website of the European Federation of Biotechnology and we have drawn attention to it in our newsletter," confirmed EFB Vice President Jeff Cole.

According to Prof. Doležel, the European Union also ignores the positive impact of genetically modified crops on the environment. "In 2018 alone, 23 billion kilograms less of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere thanks to the cultivation of genetically modified crops. The cultivation of resistant varieties obtained through genetic modification led to a reduction in the world's consumption of toxic pesticides by 776 million kilograms between 1996 and 2018. We can only hope that the EU will hear the voices of experts, including those represented in EU-SAGE, and regardless of political pressures, will allow the use of targeted methods of crop breeding based on the latest scientific knowledge," added Česká Hlava Laureate Jaroslav Doležel.

The aim of the EU-SAGE initiative is to inform about genome editing methods and to seek to change EU and Member States' policies so that they can be used to support sustainable agriculture and food production. The Czech Republic is represented in this network by seven institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, CEITEC, CRH and Mendel University in Brno.