When it comes to the use of gene editing in tillage plants to reduce pesticide and fertiliser requirements, is Europe lagging behind its agricultural competitors?
That was the question posed by attendees at a University College Cork (UCC) symposium on the potential for gene editing in Irish agriculture on Thursday.
Irish, German and British experts in the field certainly made the case that Europe is.
Irish Grain Growers chair Bobby Miller suggested that if Europe doesn’t follow the scientific progress on gene editing, it will be forced to import grain from other countries that are “already using it anyway”.
On 29 April 2022, the European Commission launched a public consultation on "legislation for plants produced by certain new genomic techniques". The consultation is open until 22 July.
Through this, the Commission is seeking stakeholders' views on a proposal for a legal framework for plants obtained by targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis (forms of gene editing) and their food and feed products.
The Commission says its aim is to enable innovation in the agri-food system while contributing to the goals of the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy and maintaining a high level of protection for human and animal health and the environment.
The public consultation is available here.
Pace of progress
Speaking at the UCC symposium, deputy head of the Commission’s biotechnology unit Sirkku Heinimaa said gene editing may provide a role in European crop production “as long as it is safe”.
She described how there have been approximately 1,000 submissions to the current public consultation on the matter, with more expected before its closure next month.
Heinimaa acknowledged that when it comes to production, currently EU “GMO (genetically modified organism) legislation is not fit for purpose for some products”.
However, she said that regardless of this, “the European Commission has a comprehensive set of measures to ensure GMO products are safe before entering the market”.
The Brussels representative reiterated the EU’s ambition on embedding sustainability into its food systems and said that there is an “urgent need to reduce on inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers”.
With this in mind, Heinimaa said there is a “strong interest in the EU” in new genomic techniques (GMTs), but some of those scientists in attendance told her the Commission’s progress on it is not moving at a sufficient pace.
‘Not enough knowledge’
Head of the centre for plant genome engineering at Dusseldorf, Germany, Dr Gotz Hensel said the current political appetite on gene editing means there will “not be much change for the next year”.
He said German politicians see the technology as having “not enough knowledge and too much risk” for rollout to mainstream German crop production.
Meanwhile, head of crop transformation at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom Professor Wendy Harwood demonstrated how the British government is currently progressing legislation to enhance the opportunities for GMT innovation and use.
She described GMT as “another technique which is giving new access to important genetic information”.
She said particular and desirable plant traits can be introduced from wild variants of an agricultural crop, which create “only small changes in the DNA” and that, when managed, can create enhanced disease resistance.
She described how she and colleagues have developed a way of “searching for a precise region in the DNA and making a change at the point”.
Prof Harwood detailed a bill which has already passed first stage at the House of Commons which will enable greater use of GMT in British crop production, with a number of those in attendance at the symposium acknowledging the faster pace at which British politicians are moving on the matter.
“[The] UK will be at a totally different level from the rest of the EU,” one said.
Prof Harwood acknowledged that within the proposed legislation “there is no current intention to require labelling” of GMT plant products.