Crag News

Gene editing requires a specific legislation that reflects its differences from transgenics

In Europe, products resulting from gene editing are regulated by the same legislation as transgenic organisms
Recerca del meló al laboratori
Recerca del meló al laboratori

•    In Europe, products resulting from gene editing are regulated by the same legislation as transgenic organisms.

•    Current global challenges require imminent solutions to address the increase in world population and the climate crisis.

•    CRAG issues a statement regarding the proposal to change European legislation and makes its knowledge available to the public to promote an informed debate.

Since the Neolithic, around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture and livestock farming began, humans have modified nature in order to obtain more and better food. The domestication of species, both animals and plants, entails the selection of interesting characteristics for cultivation and human consumption. These characteristics that we observe have a genetic basis, in DNA, which is responsible for these traits being able to be propagated to the following generations.

The race between population growth and food supply has been the driving force behind innovations in food production systems throughout history, up to the present day when agriculture is highly technified. Currently, biotechnology is used in obtaining most new varieties, inducing genetic variability with mutagenic agents or using marker-assisted selection, which significantly reduces resources required for crop improvement (in terms of time, land area, amount of water required, etc.). Moreover, nowadays, countries such as the United States, Brazil, or Argentina already produce transgenic crops, and there are more than 400 genetically modified products marketed worldwide, although the only genetically modified organism (GMO) authorized in the European Union (EU) is Bt maize, which has been grown in Catalonia since 2003.

Gene editing has revolutionized agriculture

For a few years now, the emergence of new gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, has revolutionized biotechnology applied to agriculture. These techniques, based on a defence mechanism of microorganisms that occurs naturally in nature, allow for the precise and versatile modification of the DNA of plants and animals. Despite the very specific characteristics of these new techniques, legislation has not changed, and in the EU, genetically edited plants are considered GMOs and are subjected to the same regulation that was developed in 2001 for transgenic plants (Directive 2001/18/EC). This means that these products are only within reach of large companies, due to the high economic cost (10-16 million euros) and investment of time (10–15 years), leaving out products of more local interest and small producers. Given that these new gene editing techniques have great potential, particularly for the genetic improvement of plants, and that legal requirements do not seem proportional to the potential risk of these products, there is a fairly broad consensus that the current legislative framework is not suitable for these new technologies.

Proposal to modify European legislation

In the current context of exponential growth of the world population and the climate crisis, the ability to generate sustainable solutions to increase productivity and adaptation of crops to new climatic conditions will be key to ensuring food production for the entire population. 

Currently, the European Commission has an open initiative to modify the current legislation on GMOs and adapt it to new products obtained by gene editing. This initiative is based on the results of a study that the European Commission requested in 2021, and it is expected that the Commission will make its proposal of modification public in early June this year. This initiative is in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal, the "Farm 2 Fork" strategy, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to reduce hunger and malnutrition in the world. In this sense, the Spanish presidency of the EU Council, which begins this July, will be key since members of the Spanish government have already stated that this will be one of the prioritized topics.

CRAG as a reference centre in plant research

CRAG is a leading centre in research, green biotechnology, and genomic technologies applied to the genetic improvement of plant and animal varieties. As a research centre, one of our main missions is the transfer of knowledge to society, so that the discoveries made in the laboratory have a direct benefit for all citizens.

At CRAG, gene editing techniques are currently used routinely for basic research purposes to study the functions of various genes and to improve the technique itself, which is in constant development. In addition, there are ongoing projects with an applied purpose in order to obtain, for example, melons with a longer shelf life (to avoid food waste), pest-resistant rice, virus-resistant tomatoes or drought-resistant cereals, among others.

On the other hand, several CRAG researchers have been present in committees analysing the safety and coexistence of GMOs continuously for the last 25 years both in Spain and in Europe, developed techniques for detecting their presence in food and participated in the writing of different reports and in European projects related to the subject.

CRAG considers that this proposal to modify the current European legislation is an opportunity to open an informed debate on the subject and for citizens to participate actively in defining the agriculture of the future. It is a matter of great importance for the population and it generates controversy among a part of society, that is why «CRAG can be a reference centre to provide rigorous scientific information on gene editing in plants», comments L. Maria Lois, CSIC researcher and CRAG director.

For everything that has been explained above, CRAG issues a statement regarding the proposal to revise the European regulatory framework on genetic editing and its use in agriculture. In this way, the centre manifests its commitment to society and declares that only with contrasting arguments and taking into account the current scientific knowledge can the best solutions be found to address the great challenges related to the increase in the world population and climate change, while ensuring the safety of the people and the environment.