Scientists await relaxation of EU GMO rules, but the issue is contentious

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Tomato plants being grown at Intsu talu.
Tomato plants being grown at Intsu talu. Source: Mirjam Mõttus/ERR

Wednesday, the European Commission will publish a proposal to loosen restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As the current EU GMO directive imposes stringent restrictions on the propagation of genetically modified varieties, the "de-regulation" proposal aims to permit new kind of gene-editing technologies that would allow for the cultivation of more drought- and disease-resistant plants.

The tomato plant on the windowsill at the University of Tartu Institute of Technology was obtained through precision breeding, which resulted in genome modification. Hannes Kollist, a plant biologist, suggested that similar transformations could have occurred naturally.

"We are actually changing the plants and we genuinely learn from nature: what are the mechanisms of a plant that allows it to thrive under adverse conditions? We then attempt to transfer those mechanisms to the plants we use to produce food," he said.

This is how Kollist and his team have developed drought-tolerant tomato plants; barley plants modified with the same technology will be ready soon.

Their growth requires less water, he explained. "When we stopped watering our tomatoes, they lasted much longer without water than expected."

However, field trials cannot be conducted on a precision-engineered plant due to the GMO Directive of the European Union. The Center of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge (METK) encounters the same dilemma.

METK plant biotechnology laboratory currently has the capability to create these CRISPR plants that are more disease-resistant, but they cannot test them in the field due to legal restrictions. "There are currently very unpleasant limitations on the development of science and plant breeding," Reine Koppel, a wheat breeder at the research center, said.

The European Commission will publish a proposal to loosen restrictions on Wednesday. According to scientists, this would aid in addressing the increasing global drought problem.

"For instance, in Argentina, wheat has been bred with drought-resistance genes, resulting in a 50 percent higher yield than conventional wheat in drought conditions," Koppel explained.

Also, the researchers said that permitting the new techniques would reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and other substances.

"One university has developed varieties of wheat that do not contain the protein that causes gluten sensitivity," Koppel said.

If these precision breeding techniques could be implemented it would also benefit people, who are unable to consume conventional bread.

GMO de-regulation disregards safety and consumer rights, NGO reports

The European Commission's proposed de-regulation of a new strand of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) disregards safety and consumer rights, Greenpeace said its press release.

The Commission's proposal removes or weakens safety testing for GMOs produced with new gene editing techniques (mutagenesis and cisgenesis) and exempts many from being labelled as GMO products.

Drafts of the plan included articles that would also end the right for national governments to ban these genetically modified plants from being grown on their territory.

Greenpeace EU GMO campaigner Eva Corral said: "Why would there be an exemption for [testing of] GMOs that end up on our fields or in our plates? Biotech companies have long considered these safety procedures an unnecessary bother and it is disappointing to see the commission agree with them."

Plants created using gene editing are currently governed by the EU's GMO regulations. These GMO guidelines include safeguards such as a scientific review to evaluate the dangers to the environment and human health before releasing them on the market or into the fields. 

National governments in the EU may also ban the cultivation of specific GMO plants on their territory.

The commission's proposal to de-regulate these new GMOs has been criticized by organic farmers, conventional farmers and retailers.

Recent polls and petitions suggest that Europeans want new GMOs to be labeled and regulated.

The European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that the risks associated with new mutagenesis techniques that do not involve inserting genetic material could be equivalent to those associated with 'traditional' GMOs. According to the Court, removing these new GMOs from the existing GMO guidelines would contradict the purpose of the rules, which is to protect the environment and human health.

The European Parliament will now decide which committee takes the lead on forming the parliament's position on the proposal, and national governments will decide which ministers will be in charge of agreeing their joint position.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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