European science community urges rethink on genome editing

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Scientists from The Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre joined colleagues from across Europe in calling for an urgent rethink of legislation restricting use of genome editing technology.

An open statement signed by 126 research institutes says that scientists and plant breeders in the European Union should be enabled to use genome editing with CRISPR as a faster and more efficient way of producing food sustainably.

Aimed at the newly-elected European Parliament and European Commission, the statement comes one year to the day that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that plants obtained by gene editing should be treated as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Gene-editing is quicker, and more precise than conventional breeding. It allows scientists and breeders to target specific genes already in a plant species, to turn genes on and off, for example to rapidly correct unhelpful mutations, a process that could also occur naturally over time. This use of gene editing does not result in the insertion of DNA from other sources in the final plant.

In contrast, genetic modification techniques allow genes from other sources to be inserted into a plant’s genome at a random location. It is subject to rigid European legislation issued in 2001 which is different to legislation in many other nations.

Now because of the ECJ ruling on May 25, 2018, even crops with the smallest CRISPR-mediated modification are subject to these restrictive provisions while conventional, less precise mutation breeding techniques are exempt.

The statement argues that a small revision of the European legislation will harmonise it with the legal framework in other nations and enable European scientists, breeders, farmers and producers to use tools that produce high yielding crops while decreasing the use of chemicals and water.

Professor Nick Talbot Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said: “The ruling a year ago was not based on any scientific evidence: to classify gene edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition. We call on the European Parliament and European Commission to reverse this retrograde decision.”

Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre said: “At a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges, it is essential that we can make full use of innovative tools for sustainable food production. The ECJ decision has had major negative impacts on Europe’s ability to respond to pressing global challenges.”