The European Commission needs to quickly propose new rules for crops created by modern targeted plant breeding techniques such as Crispr –Cas9 genome editing, or face a withering of Europe’s agricultural research base.
The warning comes this week from the German Bioeconomy Council (BEC), a panel of 17 researchers who advise the German government, and is widely echoed by plant researchers around the continent.
The moves follow a surprise ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in July, which said that new products created by Crispr and similar techniques that offer a precision tool for editing a plant’s genetic code, must go through the same time-consuming approval process prescribed under 2001 EU legislation for older genetic modification techniques.
“In its current form, EU genetic engineering legislation cannot do justice to the opportunities and challenges of [Crispr] technologies,” BEC said.
Plant breeders working with Crispr say the technique can speed development of a new generation of hardier, more productive, more nutritious food crops, improving traits such as pest, salinity and drought resistance, or boosting nutritional content.
If the ruling had been different, “Big funders and companies would, of course, have invested a lot in developing new crop varieties. Now, they are unlikely to do it,” said Stefan Jansson, a plant biochemist at Umeå University in Sweden. “European taxpayers will [also] be hesitant to fund research that only will strengthen agriculture in other parts of the world.”
Scientists say making Crispr techniques subject to laws developed for older genetic modification techniques which involve introducing genes from other species, imposes expensive and risky hurdles. Even when crops pass strict regulatory criteria, EU countries can ban them.
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