CRISPR

Idiots on the European Court of Justice Rule Modern Gene-Edited Crops Must Be Overregulated

"A backward step, not progress"

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Tzogia Kappatou/Dreamstime

No person on Planet Earth has gotten so much as a cough, wheeze, sniffle, or bellyache from eating foods using ingredients derived from any current variety of genetically modified crop. Current varieties safely incorporate genes for traits such as herbicide or pest resistance into crops like corn, cotton, and canola. Unfortunately, scientifically illiterate activists have managed to frighten portions of the public and politicians into adopting ridiculously onerous regulations that have stymied and slowed the deployment of these beneficial new biotech crop varieties. This is particularly the case in Europe.

With the advent of CRISPR gene editing, modern crop breeders and biotechnologists had hoped that politicians and regulators would agree not to apply their uselessly onerous GMO regulatory schemes to new gene-edited crops. For example, in the U.S. the Department of Agriculture declined to regulate a mushroom gene-edited to prevent browning. Even more happily, the USDA announced in March that it would not regulate new crop varieties developed through gene-editing techniques. Hooray!

But now the idiots sitting on the European Court of Justice have ruled that the European Union's absurd GMO regulatory scheme must be applied to gene-edited crops. "Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive," ruled the court.

This a sad day for European crop breeders and farmers. CRISPR allows a directed form of mutagenesis in which plant breeders seek to make specific modifications that will enhance some trait in a crop. Suppose plant breeders identify a gene variant in a less productive landrace variety of a crop that confers disease resistance on it. The commercial variety has the same gene, but not the specific order of DNA base pairs that confer disease resistance. People are already eating both the landrace and the commercial variety safely.

It would typically take years of cross-breeding to transfer the disease resistance gene variant from the landrace into the commercial varieties, and in the process you'd mix in lots of undesirable genes from the landrace variety. Using CRISPR, plant breeders could simply edit the gene in the commercial variety to match the one found in the landrace while keeping all of the other desirable traits that boost its productivity, harvestability, and taste.

The court further ruled that the GMO Directive "does not apply to organisms obtained by means of certain mutagenesis techniques, namely those which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record." By "certain mutagenesis techniques," the court means crop varieties randomly mutated by blasting them with ionizing radiation and harsh chemicals. In fact, hundreds of conventional mutagenic crops are widely grown throughout Europe and the world now.

If unregulated randomly mutated crops are safe to eat (and they are), then precisely gene-edited crops will be even safer and should also require no regulatory scrutiny.

Professor Johnathan Napier, who leads the UK's field trials of CRISPR-edited crops at Rothamsted Research, has quite properly denounced the court ruling, telling The Guardian that it is "a backward step, not progress."

He added: "This is a very disappointing outcome, and one that will hinder European innovation, impact and scientific advance. The classification of genome-edited organisms as falling under the GMO directive could slam the door shut on this revolutionary technology."

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