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EU seeks to allow CRISPR-Cas in future

The European Commission's new draft law for GMO plants, made public on July 5, proposes to relax regulations, which will have a significant impact on Europe's seed companies, farmers, and vegetable growers. The proposed rules specifically include how the products may enter the market. The debates in Europe start now. Several parties have expressed an ambition to reach a decision on the proposal before the European elections in June 2024.

With the aid of genetic scissors, it is possible to induce targeted genetic changes in plants. New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) are methods for creating targeted mutations (mutagenesis) in the genome of living organisms that have emerged or been developed since 2001, when the existing EU legislation on genetically modified organisms was adopted. The Commission launched a review in 2021 after concluding that GMO legislation from 2001 was "not fit for purpose." The EU's top court ruled in 2018 that genome-editing techniques should be governed by GMO rules. In 2022, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-evaluated their previous scientific opinions and concluded that there no new risks are identified in cisgenic and intragenic plants obtained with NGTs, as compared with those already considered for plants obtained with conventional breeding.

The newly released NGT proposal suggests categorizing plants resulting from targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis separately from transgenic GMOs. It introduces a notification process for "conventional-like" category 1 plants to confirm their status.

"The new European Commission proposal sets out two pathways for placing NGT plants on the market. NGT's that could also occur naturally or via conventional breeding and which meet a specific set of criteria set out in the regulation will be treated like traditional plants and exempted from the GMO legislation requirements. All other NGT plants will still need to meet the requirements of the existing GMO legislation, meaning they are subject to a risk assessment and can only be put on the market once they have regulatory authorization. "said Dr. Nina McGrath, Content production lead at EUFIC.

Several European organizations criticize the plans. PAN Europe considers that the "solutions" proposed by the industry through NGTs are merely wishful thinking. "They are the same kind of deceptions as we observed earlier with conventional GMOs. The NGT patents that are in preparation are herbicide-resistant crops, which would lead to a huge increase in pesticide use. This proposal goes against the will of citizens and violates the precautionary principle. It is not in line with the European Green Deal's (EGD) promises. The new techniques will only benefit the seed industry, leaving farmers, citizens, and the environment unprotected."

Also, Corporate Europe Observatory, claiming they are along with hundreds of environmental and farming groups, is strongly opposed to this proposal. "This will increase risks for the environment and health and undermine the rights of farmers and consumers. Since new GM seeds will be patented, this will erode farmers' rights, and it will lead to a further monopolization of the already highly concentrated seed market.

Of course, there's also enthusiasm for the proposed changes. Commenting on the proposal, Garlich von Essen, Secretary General of Euroseeds, said: "We welcome the differentiation of conventional-like NGTs from the outdated and practically unworkable approval requirements of transgenic GMOs. This is a prerequisite for a proportionate framework adapted to different profiles of these plants. But this notification process needs to be efficient and be based on clear scientific criteria to avoid what should be a simple administrative process becoming politicized and inconclusive. Only then will we truly enable the development of improved NGT plant varieties across all breeding businesses, specifically including the typical European SMEs and public institutes, and create real opportunities to address the broad diversity of crops and traits."

In addition, Euroseeds supports the distinction but raises concerns about inconsistencies and restrictions, such as the prohibition of NGT-derived plants in organic farming.

Find the EU proposal here.

Frequently Asked Questions on the proposal on New Genomic Techniques were published by the European Commission on July 5, 2023.