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European scientists ask that genome editing be allowed for sustainable agriculture and food production

Tomás Matus Lab

Today Thursday, July 25, the European scientific community has made public an open statement addressed to the newly elected European Parliament and Council, as well as to the next European Commission, to allow genome editing techniques and with them, sustainable agriculture and an improvement of food production. The request happens in a global context of population increase, decrease of biodiversity and resources, and increase in the temperature of the planet, with the need to generate more food by improving plants and developing more sustainable crop varieties.

All signatories have stressed that the ability to use these new genome editing technologies “is crucial for the well-fare and food security of European citizens”. There are 117 research institutes that have signed an initial position report that has resulted in the declaration made public today, including the Vice-Rectorate for Research of the University of Valencia. In addition, scientific personnel from various European institutions have disseminated videos explaining the advantages of this new technique. Among them, one with Juli Peretó, deputy director of Institut for Integrative Systems Biology (CSIC-University of Valencia), and José Pío Beltrán, research professor of the CSIC at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants and coordinator of the CSIC in the Valencian Community.

The public statement highlights that European agriculture can make considerable contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals applying genomic editing techniques. “Precision plant breeding methods like genome editing with CRISPR are innovative tools that have the potential to help reach these goals in a faster and more efficient way.”

To develop these varieties, specialised personnel must have access to the widest possible array of breeding tools. The most recent addition to the toolbox is precision breeding with CRISPR, which allows the desired crop varieties to be developed in a faster, relatively simple and much more directed way compared to previous techniques.

However, “the current interpretation of the European legislation (case C-528/16) prevents the use of genome editing for sustainable agriculture and food production in the EU”, highlights the statement. The coincidence with the publication on July 25 is because just one year before, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that the plants obtained through precision improvement techniques such as CRISPR are genetically modified organisms (GMO), unlike products produced with much less precise improvement techniques, which are exempt from GMO legislation.

This is highly problematic as the European GMO legislation presents an unreasonable regulatory threshold affecting research institutes and small breeder companies. Such legislation is simply too complicated and expensive to comply with for most of these centres and small businesses.”

According to the scientists who have signed the statement, the EU legislation on GMO differs from the legislation in many other nations: “the inability to market genome edited crops in Europe will cause a chilling effect on the investments in R&D in the European plant breeding sector. The result will be that the farther development of beneficial varieties in a faster and much more directed way will be halted in Europe, while the rest of the world embraces the new technology”.

Therefore, all signatories request a small revision of the European legislation to harmonise it with the legal framework of other nations, so that it would enable specialists and breeders, as well as others who are engaged in agriculture and production in Europe to include genome editing as one of their tools.

Other countries apply legislation which is more adapted to the current state of scientific knowledge, excluding plants that have alterations that could also occur naturally or result from conventional breeding activities.” In other words, in these countries the plants with edited genome are not subject to GMO legislation, which allows the use of genome editing to achieve more sustainable agriculture and food production.

 

Fungicides

Scientists have used modern precision breeding techniques to develop a mildew resistant wheat variety. In a single step, they introduced a small alteration into the so-called MLO gene that confers resistance to powdery mildew. This type of alteration of the MLO gene already exists in nature but is very difficult and time consuming to introduce via conventional breeding approaches. This is a clear example that shows how innovative methods such as CRISPR can significantly accelerate the introduction of beneficial properties in crops. The cultivation of MLO wheat does not require the application of fungicides to prevent disease, thus making it more sustainable.

 

Statement in English here.

Statement in Spanish here.

Link video Juli Peretó and José Pío Beltrán: http://go.uv.es/ucDwx3U.

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