EU ruminates on easing rules on gene technology: organic sector concerned

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The European Commission is considering easing rules on genetic modification for agricultural crops, causing concern in the organic sector. Supporters of genetic techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas, argue that they can speed up reproduction processes, reduce the use of pesticides and improve food security. However, organic farming and retail organizations are concerned about potential impacts, including costly patent ownership, farmers’ reliance on seed companies and lack of transparency. Additionally, there are concerns about the long-term risks of consuming GM vegetables and potential effects on ecosystems.

  • The European Commission is considering easing genetic modification rules for agricultural crops, causing concern in the organic sector.
  • CRISPR-Cas, a precise DNA editing technique, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture by developing disease- and drought-resistant crops.
  • Organic farming and retail organizations are expressing concern about expensive patents, farmers’ dependence on seed companies, lack of transparency, potential risks of consuming GM vegetables, and effects on ecosystems.

CRISPR-Cas: a turning point in genetic modification

CRISPR-Cas, a technique that enables precise editing of DNA in living organisms, has the potential to revolutionize agriculture. By making genetic changes in plants, scientists can develop crops resistant to disease, pests and drought, leading to improved varieties. Originally discovered as a defense mechanism used by bacteria against viruses, CRISPR-Cas technology has since been exploited for a wide range of applications, including agriculture.

Despite its potential, CRISPR-Cas is subject to the European GMO directive, which requires products treated with the technique to undergo an additional authorization process to ensure their safety. The high cost and long duration of this process have limited the widespread use of CRISPR-Cas. In contrast, countries such as the United States, China and Argentina do not subject CRISPR-Cas to GMO legislation.

Regulatory changes: a double-edged sword

The European Commission is expected to propose updated regulations for modern DNA editing techniques, including CRISPR-Cas, by mid-2023. If the rules become more flexible, farmers and other users may have to pay licensing fees to use certain CRISPR-Cas techniques. This could have financial implications, as breeders could apply for multiple patents for different genetic changes, driving up costs.

However, the regulatory changes are not without controversy. Organic farming and retail organizations have expressed concern about the potential impacts of more relaxed GMO regulations. They worry about expensive patent ownership, farmers’ dependence on big seed companies, and lack of transparency around GM crops[1]. Additionally, there are concerns about the long-term risks of consuming GM vegetables and the potential effects on ecosystems.

Negative experiences: a cautionary tale

Argentina serves as a cautionary example of the potential consequences of the extensive use of pesticides. The country’s experience with depleted soils and the emergence of resistant weeds demonstrates the potential downsides of promoting pesticide-resistant crops. Critics argue that genetic techniques should only be used to address critical problems in specific crops, rather than encouraging the development of pesticide-resistant varieties that could harm the environment.

In response to these concerns, the organic sector is supporting consumer choice and the freedom to choose foods free from genetic modification. Biowinkelvereniging, a Dutch organic retail association, will present a petition against the relaxation of GMO rules to Minister Adema tomorrow, before the European Commission makes its proposal.

Finding a balance: safety, ethics and innovation

As the European Commission considers easing rules on genetic modification, the debate on CRISPR-Cas technology continues. The technique has immense potential to improve agriculture and address global food security challenges. However, it is imperative to ensure the safety and ethical application of this technology.

Experts have called for a smarter governance system to ensure CRISPR-Cas is used for the benefit of society and the environment. Striking the right balance between innovation and regulation is key to unlocking the full potential of CRISPR-Cas technology, while addressing the concerns of the life sciences sector and other stakeholders.

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