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False dawn for gene edited crops in the EU?

Steven E. Cerier

March 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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With Europe’s agriculture sector in turmoil, as farmers stage mass protests against unworkable environmental restrictions, new breeding technologies such as gene editing could go a long way in helping the EU achieve its sustainability goals. Considering the bloc’s stringent, historical opposition to GMOs in agriculture, the European Parliament’s recent decision to adopt looser rules for the cultivation of NBTs is a significant step forward. But the regulatory regime being proposed is not likely to set the stage for a full-scale food revolution in the EU. Without a commitment to complete deregulation, Europe will remain a genetic engineering backwater for decades to come, argues retired international economist Steven Cerier.


It’s going to be a long and difficult journey before the fate of the European crop biotechnology reform bill passed on February 7 by the EU Parliament is known. Proponents and rejectionists are already positioning themselves for what is shaping up as an acrimonious debate that will spill over well into next year.


The fate of the measure revolves around two issues, either of which could derail or denude the final measure: whether to allow the patenting of gene-edited crops; and whether plants engineered using what the bill calls New Genomic Techniques (NGTs), will be traced and labelled.


Claiming there is “misery ahead” for European farmers if the bill passes in its current form, Greenpeace issued its objections, claiming it will accelerate the ‘corporate takeover’ of global agriculture - a view echoed by other environmental groups who aligned with the organic industry in lobbying to water down the final bill.


Scientists, farmers and seed companies welcomed the passage of the bill. They claim the reforms are needed for the EU to participate in the agricultural genetic revolution that is creating hardier, higher-yielding, more nutritious and climate resilient crops.


But reform proponents are far from enthusiastic. Yes, it’s an improvement over current statutes that all but ban the growing of transgenic GMO crops in the EU. But they claim it is filled with restrictions that would ensure Europe would remain a global crop biotechnology backwater if preserved in the final measure.


At a time when many other countries, including Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, the US, Israel, Japan, Canada and Australia, have all recently removed the shackles from new breeding technologies (NBTs), there are many problems with the EU proposals which suggest it will not be the panacea that many had hoped for.


Challenges to passing the Bill

The EU Council of Ministers has yet to agree a common position on the NGT dossier, with Hungary, Austria, Poland and Germany likely to be among the most recalcitrant countries, where anti-GE groups have forged broad coalitions. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) has issued in-depth reports analysing the depths of the opposition in each country.



Although the country has no formal policy on cisgenic gene-editing, the most recent report from the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service for Hungary indicates that it is “one of the strongest opponents of transgenic engineering”,  and notes that maintaining its “GE free status” is a government priority:

“Hungary does not produce genetically engineered (GE) crops, animals, or cloned livestock. The Government of Hungary opposes the use of GE products in agriculture. Political parties in Hungary have historically held a firm anti-GE position… Maintaining the country’s GE-free status is among the government’s highest priorities. [Hungary] does not support any initiative that would allow “NGT” products to be placed on the market without risk assessments. Additionally, it requires a mandatory labelling system.”



Austria is also a long-time genetic engineering opponent, claiming it poses “incalculable risks”, although opposition appears to be softening in certain sectors. The country has the highest percentage of agricultural land in the EU under organic management. According to the USDA, “Anti-biotech NGOs, farmer organisations, the food-processing sector, and the retail sector all campaign against genetically engineered agricultural food products.”


Although the government formally opposes the current NGT measure, and the public is hostile, “within informed stakeholder groups like scientists, seed breeders, seed traders, and farmer representatives, the acceptance of innovative biotechnologies … is much higher than for traditional GE crops.”



Poland formally opposes crop biotechnology. Paradoxically, it imports millions of tons of GMO corn to feed its livestock even though a ban is in place, and there is no parliamentary plan to enforce that ban. Opposition to biotechnology is slowly softening in some sectors, the USDA reports, noting that “most Polish scientists and some commercial farmers support advanced agricultural techniques.” Still, “70 percent of Poles oppose agricultural biotechnology [and] environmental organisations, and consumer groups regularly protest its use in agriculture.”



The future of gene editing in Europe may rest with Germany, which has the largest economy and is the most populous country in the EU. Without its acceptance, any major liberalisation is doomed to fail. The issue is “highly politicised”, the USDA writes, and the government is “conflicted”. While Germany is “generally open to new technology” and is home to numerous global agri-businesses.


“Biotech test plots, which are used both as a research tool and are a required part of the EU regulatory approval process, were destroyed by vandals so often that test plots are no longer attempted in Germany today. Public rejection of GE crops has been widespread for decades and still prevails. [A]round 58 percent of the German population are still in favour of strict regulation of agricultural biotechnology and oppose the European Commission’s proposal to deregulate the genetic engineering law. … In the current environment, there is still little prospect of developing a German market for GE crops or foods.”


Labelling and traceability required?

To make the deregulation of GE crops more palatable to opponents of the technology, MEPs have proposed that labelling should be required. Pushing back, a growing coalition of scientists, farmers and agri-businesses, as well as many consumer advocates, say labelling is unnecessary and even deceptive, and that it would inhibit acceptance, used by anti-GE forces to demonise and vilify foods produced via NBTs.


It would indeed be a political label and not a scientific one. Gene-edited crops mimic what happens in nature, which is the justification used by governments around the world in deregulating cisgenesis. But even labelling requirements on GMO crops make no scientific sense. Genetic engineering is a process and not an ingredient.


Why would any government single out labelling GMO and gene-edited foods but no other breeding process? Foods derived from seeds that have undergone mutagenesis — 3,200 crops including organic varieties of sweet grapefruit —are not labelled even though the seeds were created using chemicals, gamma rays or X-rays, to get the desired trait. Mutagenesis has been part of crop breeding for 90 years.


Other requirements designed to placate the anti-GE advocates include mandatory traceability and a so-called safeguard clause requiring the withdrawal of authorisation in the event an issue is discovered. This is a Trojan-horse clause because there is currently no way to trace gene edits, as the tweaks mimic natural processes.


Even if tracing of GE products becomes technically feasible, the clause requiring the withdrawal of authorisation in the event of an issue is vague and could be used by opponents to sabotage the roll-out of GE technology.


Ban on patents could be a ‘make or break’ issue

The proposed legislation approved by MEPs also includes a full ban on patents for all plants and plant material developed via new breeding techniques. Why? A Parliament press release claimed it would “avoid legal uncertainties, increased costs and new dependencies for farmers and breeders,” but that’s not so.  Although patent protections can be exploited, there is scant evidence, based on experience from around the world, that this would be the case.


Patents have been a key innovation tool in agriculture. When not abused, they incentivise the development of improved new varieties. For example, the popular Honeycrisp apple variety was developed under patent, although it’s long since been off-patent. Even organic seed developers patent their inventions.


It takes upwards of 10 years and $130 million to develop a single patented trait in the US. As a patent is only in effect for 20 years from the filing of an application, that would leave as little as 7-10 years after approval for innovators to recover those staggering costs. Without a patent, why would individuals, universities or companies expend tens of millions of dollars only to see their products sold elsewhere for a pittance.


This provision is the most contentious in the measure, and some gene-editing proponents see it as a possible poison pill. Although the Greens opposed the overall legislation, they strongly supported this amendment, as it could undercut the entire liberalisation process. They hailed its inclusion as a “big win”. Seed and crop industry group EuropaBio called it a ‘red flag’, with one lobbyist saying the industry would fight the patent ban “with all its powers.”


GE forbidden in organic farming, but at a cost

Allowing genetic engineering in organic farming makes intellectual sense, and by forgoing the use of GE, organic farmers risk putting themselves at a severe competitive disadvantage.


For example, disease-resistant grapes are in development that could reduce crop losses and the costs of spraying organic copper sulphate fungicides, which are dangerous to beneficial insects, deplete the soil, and are known carcinogens. As a result, organic grape farmers will continue to suffer crop losses.


Some in the organic movement believe gene editing should be seriously considered. Urs Niggli, former head of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL), admitted that GMO-free is a selling point for organic, and that organic associations have deliberately stoked the fear of molecular biological breeding methods to distinguish themselves on the market.


Niggli called that view outdated, as CRISPR-Cas9 enables targeted mutations at individual sites of the genome, as happens all the time in nature or conventional breeding. He warned that in rejecting GE, “the organic sector could lose its pioneering edge in sustainable agriculture, consigned to producing 20-50% lower yields than conventional farming.” It could “miss out on potential solutions to current production challenges such as reliance on copper-based fungicides for disease control.”


What happens next?

The European Council will next take up the legislation. Belgium holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU until the end of June. Its attitude towards possible GE crop cultivation is split, illustrated by the divided opinion in its two regions: Wallonia (French-speaking) and Flanders (Dutch-speaking). Wallonia is opposed while support is growing in the Flemish region. It contains an agricultural biotech hub, where significant biotechnology research and experimental field trials are conducted.


With EU Parliamentary elections scheduled for early June, no debate is likely over the next few months. On July 1, Hungary assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EC.  It is adamantly opposed to GE.  As a result, the measure is unlikely to come up this year. In January 2025, Poland will assume the six-month rotating presidency. It too is a country that is not enthusiastic about the use of GE for crop cultivation. It therefore might take two years (or more) for the measures to undergo the serious debate and bridge-building needed to get the necessary support.


Time is of the essence

The EU is now well behind other countries in liberalising regulations and commercialising GE food products. The restrictive environment has prompted some plant geneticists to decamp to countries with a more favourable attitude. Venture capital to finance agricultural innovation has slowed to a trickle. Few trials are being conducted. Unlike in the US, where there is a plethora of companies researching and developing products, there are few such companies in the EU. It needs to build a GE infrastructure, but it is failing.


The EU agriculture sector is in turmoil. Farmers are demonstrating against restrictive regulations, staging mass demonstrations in France, Germany and Belgium. They have challenged what they claim is an unworkable Europe Farm to Fork Strategy touted as a key tool to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To placate farmers, the EU has granted them temporary exemptions from rules to set aside land for nature conservation, scrapped a proposal in its 2040 climate plan to halve pesticide use, and weakened the recommendations concerning agriculture emissions.


NBTs could go a long way in helping Europe achieve its sustainability goals. Its products could reduce pesticide and fungicide use by creating insect and disease-resistant crops. It could reduce fertiliser use by developing plants that create their own nitrogen. It could reduce waste and spoilage of crops by producing crops with longer shelf lives, non-browning and hardier when transported. It can create plants that are drought-resistant and can grow using less water.


The EU Parliament’s decision to adopt legislation loosening the rules for the cultivation of NBTs is a significant step forward considering the EU’s stringent, historical opposition to the introduction of biotechnology to crop cultivation. But the regulatory regime being proposed is not likely to set the stage for a full-scale food revolution in the EU.  Without a commitment to complete deregulation, the EU will remain a genetic engineering backwater for decades to come.


Steven E. Cerier is a retired international economist and frequent commentator on the application of biotechnology to producing food and medicine.  This is an adapted version of an article which first appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project website here and is reproduced with kind permission.

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