Agriculture faces many challenges to maximize yields while it is at the same time required to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner. In a study published in 2015, we (Ricroch et al., 2015) analysed the major agricultural challenges identified by European farmers themselves in 13 representative countries. Biotic stresses came first in the identified challenges. Bioaggressors include fungi or insects, viral or bacterial diseases, and parasitic plants. We also analysed whether these challenges have been addressed by research and by using which technique (either conventional breeding, marker-assisted selection, transgenesis, cisgenesis, RNAi technology or mutagenesis).
For the nine major crops we examined in Europe, we found that out of the 128 biotic stress identified challenges only 40% were addressed (evidence was based on the scientific literature or in recent European public research programs). We concluded that there are considerable gaps between farmers’ needs and the current breeding efforts by both private companies and the public sector. While more biotechnology research would be needed, we found that the current political situation in certain European countries is blocking such research.
Europe is also losing out on gene editing
In a more recent publication (Martin-Laffon et al., 2019), surveying the worldwide CRISPR patent landscape, we documented a new geopolitical balance of forces in this field, in favour of China which has overtaken the USA. After losing the “GMO” battle, Europe is not in a position to regain its footing in this new biotech battlefield (Europe filed only 10% of these patents).
What are the causes of this weakening of European science? One can consider that the GMO bans had a strong negative impact. However, it is not the sole factor since the weak European position in CRISPR patenting also extends to health aspects (which are not controversial as is agricultural biotech). The problem may be more widespread and one has to consider other factors such as a more general hostile cultural (“precautionary”) climate against innovations, as well as a European naivety in the current economic competition. One expression of these latter two considerations is the EU regulation.
The problems with the EU biotech regulation
As pointed out by Nigel Halford in a recent post, many had hoped that gene editing techniques would be exempted from the GMO risk assessment process in Europe, just like ‘classical’ mutagenesis is. However, the July 2018 judgment by the European Court of Justice (Opinion Case C-528/16) was a disappointment to them.
This EU regulation on “genetically modified organisms” is based on the technical process used to genetically improve an organism (plant varieties for example) rather than on the properties of the organism (the phenotype). This regulation was intended to specifically target transgenesis because it was a new technique. This regulation played a major role in blocking the development of “GMOs”, although this was not its original purpose. New biotechnologies such as gene editing will be facing the same problems since Europe is politically locked in its misinterpreted Precautionary Principle and is unable to positively address the issue of new techniques.
If this counter-productive EU Directive on “GMOs” remains the point of reference the deadlock will persist. One of my recent publications proposes several ideas for a new approach to regulating plant biotechnology.
A key point is that one needs to assess real risks, not perceived risk after disinformation by anti-GMO activists, or simply because they fall into the EU “GMO” regulatory framework.
In order to prevent discrimination between techniques, all modern plant breeding techniques, including marker-assisted selection, should enter the risk assessment from the same starting line.
We proposed a simple operational method, which focuses on the phenotype of a new variety instead of the method used to generate it. This is the only way to have a flexible and scalable system that is capable of adapting to the rapid evolution of new technologies such as genome editing. Our proposal also includes an operational role in risk assessment for farmers themselves, in collaboration with technical and scientific institutes.
In this publication, we also rejected the dichotomies of the current debate. First, it is illusionary (in the Precautionary Principle ideological context) to declare new genome editing methods as highly efficient while proposing exemptions from the EU “GMO” regulation for the reason that the DNA could have been created naturally. Secondly, it does not make sense to propose to exonerate a new biotechnology (e.g. genome editing) from regulation, while an older technology (namely transgenesis) with fully characterized risks would still carry a heavy regulatory burden.
Political actions are required
Rather than retreating again and again on the biotechnology issue, political authorities should use a democratic procedure to establish the level of risk that is tolerable by society-at-large, when aligned with potential benefits. This is particularly important given the context of distrust.
In other words, this procedure should address general objectives (e.g. what are the assets to protect? What are our goals?), which are easy to understand for all non-experts. It should avoid disconnecting concepts from facts, as has been the case with the nonsensical “GMO” category as Giovanni Tagliabue has shown.
This is, however, unlikely to occur as long as the European establishment has not admitted to leading the continent down the wrong ideological path…
Marcel Kuntz is Director of research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He studies the function of genes coding for chloroplast proteins and involved in resistance to stress. He also writes on the controversy over GMOs and the philosophy of science.