Under EU rules, scientific considerations from within the European Commission are a first step towards amending laws, but they are very far from a political decision from the European Union.
The European Commissions (EC) chief scientific advisors have called on the EU’s executive arm to revise the blocs genetically modified organisms (GMO) directive in order to harness gene editing. This statement follows on from the European Court of Justices ruling in July which ruled that plants created using genome editing methods would be classed as GMOs and therefore have to undergo the same safety checks for their impacts on the environment and human health as existing GMOs.
The July 2018 ruling was seen as a blow for the bioeconomy at the time, but now the ECs scientific advisors are asking for the GMO legislation to be revamped which could be a positive step for bio-based chemicals.
In a recent statement, the ECs Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) Group of chief scientific advisors said: There is a need to improve the EU GMO legislation to be clear, evidence-based, implementable, proportionate and flexible enough to cope with future advances in science and technology in this area.
Specifically, they question if it is worth reflecting whether the directives concept of naturalness is useful when deciding on regulatory requirements for organisms with an altered genome. The advisors state that new targeted mutation technologies such as gene editing create crops with genetic alterations indistinguishable to crops created by naturally occurring mutations or by random mutagenesis.
The advisors conclude that the GMO directive should be revised to reflect current knowledge and scientific evidence, and as part of a broad dialogue with relevant stakeholders and the public at large.
They also stated that this should be done with reference to other legislation relevant to food safety and environmental protection.
New techniques of directed mutagenesis include gene editing such as CRISPR/Cas9 methodologies. The legal status of the products of such techniques was uncertain, because it was unclear whether they fell within the scope of the GMO directive. The July ECJ ruling, followed ten years of discussion, and was seen as a victory to environmentalists.
Genome editing is currently being applied in a broad range of projects, including the production of bio-based chemicals to help provide renewable substitutes for fossil fuels. Other uses include the development of crops to improve yields and reduce food waste.
In a statement to Bio-Based World News, Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe (@foeeurope), gave a negative reaction to the recent SAM statement.
She said: Under EU rules, scientific considerations from within the European Commission are a first step towards amending laws, but they are very far from a political decision from the European Union.
The immediate problem is not with tinkering with the definition of GMOs, but in ensuring the European Commission and national governments immediately and clearly communicate the implications of Julys ECJ ruling in order to avoid chaos in the food sector. They must clearly explain that the ruling means that GMO 2.0 need to be subject to the existing GMO safety screening, traceability and labelling requirements.
Speaking positively about the statement from the scientific advisors, Carlos Moedas (@Moedas), Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: Gene-editing is a critical technology with an enormous potential to improve human health and preserve the environment.
I therefore welcome the statement from our chief scientific advisors which will contribute to a well-informed debate on the regulatory framework needed to maintain high levels of protection while enabling innovations that contribute to the environment and well-being. Their statement also provides a valuable input into our reflections on future-proofing regulation so that our laws can keep up with our labs.