Citation suggestion: Joost van Kasteren, JVK (2023). Gene editing, An essential tool for sustainable and healthy food systems. Future Europe, 3(1), 57–63.
New breeding technologies (NBTs), including gene editing technologies, are recognized for their potential to increase the productivity of healthy food systems and reduce their impact on the environment and climate change. These technologies have comparable or even lower environmental and health risks than classical breeding techniques and, therefore, do not require stricter regulations.
However, in 2018, the European Court of Justice classified plants produced using NBTs, including new breeding technologies such as the CRISPR/Cas system, as genetically modified organisms, thereby subjecting the crop varieties developed using NBTs to onerous authorization procedures. As a result, crop varieties arising from NBTs cannot be produced in the European Union (EU), negatively impacting consumers, the environment, biodiversity, and the competitiveness of Europe’s agriculture industry. Herein, it is argued that the societal benefits of NBTs outweigh the risks and that the existing EU legal framework for classical breeding techniques can mitigate any remaining risks.
Introduction: What are new breeding technologies?
New breeding technologies (NBTs), such as gene editing, hold great potential for enhancing the productivity of healthy food systems and for reducing their environmental impact, including climate change. NBTs can also contribute to strengthening the resilience of food systems and supply chains that are vulnerable to disruptions, as seen during international crises such as the war in Ukraine and rising food prices. Furthermore, the environmental risks associated with NBTs are comparable to, or even lower than, those of classical breeding technologies that have been used for centuries or more. This suggests that there is no need for NBTs to be subjected to stricter regulation than those applied to traditional methods (Lassoued et al., 2019).
Regrettably, the legal situation in the European Union (EU) today does not reflect the potential benefits of NBTs. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that crops developed using gene editing techniques, such as the CRISPR/Cas system, must undergo the same strict authorization procedure as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018). As a result, NBT crops cannot be produced in the EU without overcoming unnecessary and burdensome regulatory hurdles. This situation is detrimental to consumers, the environment, and biodiversity, and it also undermines the competitiveness of European agriculture and processing industries (See Schönig, 2020).
The European Commission has announced that it will table a proposal in 2023 to address the current regulatory situation for NBTs. Thus, NBTs will soon become the subject of intense political debate in Europe, with enormous stakes, given that the outcome will determine the future of gene editing in the EU. However, before delving into the debate, it is important to understand what these new breeding methods entail.
NBTs represent the next phase in a series of developments that began thousands of years ago, when women across different regions of the world began saving seeds to sow in the following season (Boulding, 1992). They carefully selected seeds from plants that retained their seeds better, were larger, or were more resistant to disease, resulting in the emergence of numerous “domesticated” landraces that were well-suited to the local climate, soil, and the needs of the people who depended on them.
Although the exact date remains unknown, cross-breeding of plants within the same species but with different traits is believed to have begun in the 16th century. This was done to produce crops that were both productive and disease-resistant. In the early 20th century, following the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inheritance, people worldwide began to search for both wild and domesticated plants with desirable traits. They aimed to crossbreed them with other plants that possessed similarly beneficial characteristics (Kingsbury, 2009).
Crossing two varieties of a species takes an substantial amount of time, often spanning 10–40 years before arriving at the desired combination of traits. It is analogous to mixing the words of two voluminous Tolstoy novels and attempting to create a coherent novel afterwards. Furthermore, the availability of spontaneous mutations (naturally occurring changes in the genetic material) that arise somewhere in the world limits the process.
In the 1930s, people started deliberately creating mutations by treating seeds with chemicals or radiation, a technique called classical mutagenesis or mutation breeding (Kingsbury, 2009:266-272). However, mutagenesis is an imprecise and unguided process because it is impossible to know in advance what kind of mutations will be created. Indeed, some mutations are harmful, causing the seed to stop germinating or to grow poorly, whereas others are neutral, and only a few may be useful. Well-known examples of products resulting from mutation breeding include durum wheat for pasta, pink grapefruit, several varieties of rice, and groundnut.
Classical mutagenesis, although taking less time than cross-breeding, is still a time consuming process. It is analogous to mixing the words of one Tolstoy novel rather than two. Some well-known examples of crops created through classical mutagenesis include red grapefruit, durum wheat, and many varieties of cereals, pulses, and bananas.
The NBTs under discussion offer a highly improved and sophisticated form of mutagenesis, also referred to as “targeted” or “site-directed” mutagenesis. NBTs enable specific changes to the DNA of seeds. For example, this technology allows for the “switching off” or “switching on” of a gene that has been “switched on or off” through evolution, respectively (Frederick, 2021).
It is possible to replace a specific gene with a gene from another variety within the same species, which is called cisgenesis. The resulting variety does not differ from varieties made through the centuries-old process of cross-breeding, although the process is faster and more specific. The process is analogous to the “search and replace” function in a word processor.
NBTs, including gene editing, differ from genetic modification in that no “foreign” genes from other species are introduced. Although gene editing is a faster and more directed process, it still operates on the same principles that apply in nature. However, under current EU rules, NBTs are considered genetic modification technologies and are therefore subject to the GMO directive.
NBTs in the context of EU policy
Prior to 2018, NBTs were not subject to GMO legislation at the EU level, granting member states the liberty to create their own policies (European Council (1990a); European Council (1990b)). However, the European Court of Justice’s 2018 ruling altered this exemption, offering greater clarity regarding the legal status of mutagenesis and plant breeding techniques but prompting multiple EU governments, including the Netherlands, Estonia, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden, to urge the European Commission to revise and update the EU’s GMO legislation.
The EU’s GMO legislation was initially established in 1990 and has undergone various revisions since. The court’s ruling means that NBTs are, in principle, bound by the corresponding EU-wide authorization, traceability, and labeling requirements. Nevertheless, many stakeholders feel that this approach is no longer appropriate. Indeed, mutagenesis has been used in agriculture for many years and has a well-established safety record.1
Since November 2019, the European Commission has embarked on a fact-finding mission and consulted with stakeholders regarding the concept of proposing a legal framework for plants derived from targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis as well as their associated food and feed products (European Commission, 2022). It is anticipated that this proposal will be presented during the first half of 2023. As the policy discussion regarding the regulation of these novel techniques is just beginning, it is imperative to thoroughly evaluate the societal and environmental benefits of NBTs while also considering the associated risks.
The potential use of NBTs as part of Europe’s Green Deal
NBTs offer tremendous potential for society, particularly in terms of sustainability, human and animal health, and environmental protection. Furthermore, small, and medium-sized firms and farmer-breeders collectives will have increased accessibility to these technologies. NBTs can play a crucial role in achieving the objectives of the EU’s Green Deal, particularly the Farm-to-Fork strategy aimed at advancing the sustainable development of the European food system. Additionally, NBTs have the potential to improve the nutritional value of agricultural products and align the composition of foodstuffs with consumer needs.
The importance of NBTs for sustainable agriculture is best exemplified by the concept of the “genetic yield gap,” which was introduced in 2022 by a group of international researchers in the scientific journal Nature Food. They mapped the yield gap of wheat, one of the world’s most important cereal crops (Senapati et al., 2022).
Traditionally, the yield gap refers to the difference between the theoretically possible yield under optimal conditions (e.g. high-quality soil, adequate water and nutrients, and no diseases and pests) and the actual yield. This yield gap varies markedly among regions. In many sub-Saharan countries, as well as Australia, and Kazakhstan, theoretical losses may be as high as 70%, whereas in countries such as France and New Zealand, the yield gap averages around 30%.
In recent decades, numerous efforts have been made to narrow the yield gap. The Green Revolution ushered in improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides as well as the requisite knowledge to use them effectively. Consequently, yields per hectare have nearly tripled over the past 60 years.
However, further narrowing the yield gap is limited by financial and biophysical constraints. Financially, small farmers in low- and middle-income countries find that the costs of fertilizers and pesticides may outweigh the value of their yields. Biophysically, the need to reduce the environmental impact of fertilizers and pesticides presents another constraint, as highlighted in the EU’s Farm-to-Fork strategy that aims to foster fairer, healthier, and more sustainable food systems.
Therefore, researchers and seed suppliers are increasingly focusing on influencing the genetic properties of crops to narrow the yield gap. For example, they aim to make crops genetically resistant to diseases, pests, and extended periods of drought or give them the ability to bind nitrogen with the help of soil bacteria, thereby reducing the need for artificial fertilizers.
NBTs hold enormous potential for vital crops such as wheat. Studies suggest that world wheat production could double if its genetic potential were fully realized (Senapati et al., 2022). Furthermore, wheat has a long history of breeding, dating back 10,000 years. The genetic potential of less-developed crops, including “orphan crops,” such as cassava and sorghum, is probably even greater (CropLife International (2019).
Time is of the essence
Unlocking the genetic potential of crops through classical breeding is possible in principle, but it is considered very time consuming. Using CRISPR and similar techniques, achieving what could take 10–40 years with older technologies can now be completed in just 1 or 2 years.
The speed of NBTs is critical for several reasons. Globalization has enabled not only people and goods to travel around the world but also diseases and pests. An alarming example is the rapid spread of the fall armyworm in Africa. Originally found only in the Western Hemisphere where its natural enemies exist, this caterpillar of the moth Spodoptera frugiperda (Timilsena et al., 2022) arrived in West Africa around 2010 and within a few years spread across the entire continent, causing substantial damage, particularly to maize crops. For example, crop losses in Kenya and Tanzania have been as high as 70%. However, some maize varieties are resistant to the armyworm (Singh et al., 2022), and with the help of gene editing, this characteristic can be incorporated into the maize varieties grown in Africa and Asia.
Developing new varieties quickly is crucial for various reasons, including climate change, which is causing prolonged droughts in many parts of the world. Australian researchers have discovered a wheat gene (GAS) that makes the crop more drought-resistant (Zhao et al., 2022). Wheat seeds with this property can be sown up to 1.2 m deep to reach deeper groundwater. In Australia, under climate conditions from 1901 to 2020, this variety could have yielded 20% more wheat. Crops that are resistant to diseases, pests, and weeds could further increase yields. Higher productivity can also reduce the need for land, which can be returned to nature, conserving biodiversity, ecosystems, and traditional landscapes.
There is currently no universally agreed-upon definition of “marginal land.” However, based on soil quality, nearly half of Europe’s agricultural area is classified as marginal land. This land is less suitable for agriculture due to factors such as poor soil fertility and/or water balance (Gerwin et al., 2018). Instead of using this land for high-yield agriculture, it could be designated for nature or low-yield agriculture combined with the re-creation of traditional landscapes to promote biodiversity. In addition, this land could function as a carbon sink, effectively storing carbon, and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change (Lamb et al., 2016).
Healthier diets and cancer prevention
NBTs have the potential to help farmers and growers adapt to the impacts of climate change by producing higher yielding crops with fewer inputs of nutrients, water, and crop protection products, leading to a reduced environmental footprint and more space for nature. To meet the growing demand for food, we require a yearly productivity increase of 1.73%. However, the current growth rate stands at only 1.12%. By improving productivity and decreasing the environmental impact of food systems, NBTs can help bridge this gap (College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, 2022).
Plant breeders can use NBTs to quickly find traits that make crops more resilient to drought and diseases, and improve nutrient use efficiency, minimizing losses to the environment, by screening the genomes of different varieties, including wild, and cultured plants. NBTs can also enhance the safety and nutritional value of food products. For instance, a genetically edited tomato developed in Japan contains five times more gamma-amino butyric acid than a typical tomato, which may help combat high blood pressure. In 2020, this edited tomato received regulatory approval (Asanuma § Ozak, 2020).
A group of mainly European researchers has developed a tomato variety with increased levels of vitamin D (Li et al, 2022), which is a crucial nutrient for preventing various diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, bone diseases, and serious forms of COVID-19. With over a billion people worldwide not getting enough vitamin D, this new variety could play an essential role in improving human health. Similarly, in other crops like rice, NBTs have been utilized to develop varieties that can prevent deficiencies in micronutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, and vitamins), which are often prevalent in women and children in low- and middle-income countries.
NBTs not only enable the production of substances that promote health but can also be used to remove substances that can damage health, including naturally occurring substances in crops, such as allergens, and those created during processing. Rothamsted Research in the UK is currently conducting field trials with a wheat variety that contains markedly less asparagine, an amino acid found naturally in wheat. Asparagine can be converted into acrylamide, a potentially carcinogenic substance, when bread is baked, or toasted. Potatoes also have this problem, especially if they are stored for a long time. Asparagine reacts with sugars during baking and frying of potatoes (the Maillard reaction), resulting in the formation of acrylamide. However, gene editing techniques can prevent the production of sugars in potatoes.
Plants naturally produce substances that can be toxic or allergenic and are generally not healthy for humans and animals. These chemicals protect plants from being eaten by other organisms, including humans, by making them poisonous, or bitter-tasting. Our ancestors successfully reduced the content of naturally occurring toxins in plants over the centuries to the point where they are no longer harmful or rendered harmless through processing, such as with potatoes, and cassava. However, anti-nutritional factors, chemicals that impede the absorption of vitamins and minerals, still pose a challenge. Oxalic acid in spinach and rhubarb is a well-known example of an anti-nutritional factor that impedes the absorption of calcium, among other substances. Phytic acid, found in cereals, legumes (e.g. beans, peas, and lentils), and nuts, impedes the absorption of iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. NBTs can reduce or even block the production of these factors, thereby improving the absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Gene editing can also be used to reduce or block the production of naturally occurring allergenic substances in plants. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, is a notorious example that can lead to severe reactions such as celiac disease or less severe reactions such as gluten intolerance. Gene editing has already been used to develop several cereal varieties in which the production of the proteins causing the allergy or intolerance is reduced or blocked.
Regulating NBTs and the need for a “level playing field”
Several politicians have raised concerns about potential unintended consequences of modern gene editing techniques. These concerns range from the creation of harmful products or by-products to the emergence of invasive species (The Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, 2022). It is certainly important to carefully analyse any potential risks associated with these new technologies. However, what is noteworthy about these concerns is that they focus selectively, if not arbitrarily, on the use of modern genetic techniques alone. Classical cross-breeding experiments and techniques, which have been employed for thousands of years, as well as classical mutagenesis, in which seeds are exposed to radiation and chemicals, are considered “safe.” The European Court of Justice also shares this view, as its ruling on NBTs does not encompass classical cross-breeding (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018).
It is important to acknowledge that unintended effects can occur with any breeding technique, including in nature where spontaneous mutations are the driving force behind evolution. Therefore, regulators and policymakers should not focus solely on whether modern genetic techniques in plant breeding can lead to harmful unintended effects, but must also consider whether the chance of this happening is more or less likely than with traditional cross-breeding and classical mutagenesis techniques, which are commonly considered safe.
In short, the chance of unintended effects occurring is actually lower with modern targeted breeding techniques than with traditional and less precise methods. The reason for this is clear: in traditional cross-breeding, the genetic material of two different varieties is combined, and through a series of crosses, breeders aim to produce a new variety with the desired characteristics. However, when applying traditional methods, problems may arise. A prime example of the potential risks of traditional breeding techniques is the case of the potato variety Lenape, which was introduced onto the market in 1968 (Koerth, 2023). This potato was created by cross-breeding a commercial variety with a wild counterpart from the high mountains of Peru. The result was a visually appealing potato with a high dry weight, low sugar content, and resistance to potato blight. Unfortunately, shortly after its introduction, Lenape was found to contain excessive levels of toxic alkaloids. Within two years, this “ideal” potato disappeared from the market, and new varieties were tested for their alkaloid content to prevent a similar occurrence.
In classical mutagenesis, seeds are exposed to chemicals or radiation to induce mutations in the genetic material (Kingsbury, 2009). This can be described as a “shotgun” approach, where the aim is to induce a useful change in the genetic material, but unintended, and harmful effects can also occur; therefore, it is analogous to firing a shotgun and hoping that one of the pellets will hit the target, although others could cause unintended damage to non-targets.
Despite the element of chance involved in traditional breeding methods and classical mutagenesis, we still consider them safe due to the regulatory framework in place, i.e. the infrastructure for monitoring and compliance, to prevent potentially harmful varieties from entering the market and reaching consumers. In the EU, for instance, new varieties must be included in the Plant Variety database, and products derived from these varieties must be authorized under the Novel Foods Regulation (European Parliament § European Council, 2015).2 This system of rules and regulations has been effective so far, and there are no current proposals to tighten it.
Given that the existing regulatory framework is sufficient for the shotgun approach to mutagenesis, it is difficult to understand why new breeding techniques based on gene editing, which offer a more precise and reliable way of achieving the same goals, should require more stringent regulations. In other words, there is no need to regulate NBTs more strictly than traditional methods. This is not to say that unintended effects can never occur, but the likelihood of such effects is smaller, and our current safety nets are more than adequate. Furthermore, any unintended changes can be rapidly detected through genome analysis.
Debunking social and economic concerns about NBTs
In addition to safety concerns, concerns have been raised about the potential social and economic consequences of using modern breeding techniques. Critics argue that new varieties may be unaffordable for small farmers in low- and middle-income countries, leading to consolidation, and monopolization of the seed sector (Hebron, 2021). However, the opposite may actually be true. Genome-editing technologies are becoming increasingly accessible and democratizing the benefits of science. These techniques are relatively inexpensive to implement and can be used to enhance both major and minor crops, making it possible for smallholder farms to benefit from genome-editing (Pixley et al., 2022).
Gene editing technologies are affordable and can produce results quickly, making them accessible to small and medium-sized breeding companies as well as farmers’ collectives. Both research institutes and commercial companies can provide the necessary facilities for developing and implementing new crop varieties. An example of this is the work of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture on genome-editing bananas for disease resistance (IITA, 2020).
However, one potential obstacle is the patents associated with modern techniques such as CRISPR. Fortunately, these technologies provide enormous freedom to operate for small and starting entrepreneurs. They require little investment, and the number of available and accessible tools is so vast that a patent is no longer a major concern. Moreover, many of these techniques are developed at universities and other public research institutions and are in the public domain (Cameron, 2017). For foundational CRISPR technologies, non-exclusive licenses are available for many patents. Furthermore, if monopolization becomes a problem, the EU has one of the world’s best antitrust agencies, the European Commission, to address the issue.
Finally, if accessibility to NBTs for small and medium-sized farms is a concern, imposing heavy-handed safety rules and regulations is not the answer. Such rules would only make it harder for small farmers to access these technologies, as the cost of red tape and administrative burdens weigh more heavily on small farmers than on corporations. The same holds true for complex systems with standards and certifications as well as the introduction of labeling requirements for NBTs. Such requirements do not exist for traditional cross-breeding methods and classical mutagenesis; therefore, labeling would create unwanted market distortions.
Conclusion and policy recommendation
To fully utilize the genetic potential of crops, e.g. improving their ability to withstand droughts and other climate change effects, the EU must remove the unnecessarily burdensome approval procedures for NBTs. These technologies should be treated no differently than traditional breeding methods that are deemed inferior and less safe breeding technologies by scientific standards. It is illogical and counterproductive to do otherwise, especially during a time of rapidly increasing food prices and global geopolitical conflicts that disrupt supply chains.
Over the past 50 years, the EU has successfully established an infrastructure that ensures the quality of seeds.3 Europe’s robust economic and knowledge ecosystem has thrived, producing some of the best and most innovative agricultural science in the world and leading in numerous other ways. However, by imposing excessively strict regulatory requirements for NBTs, the EU is undermining its own achievements.
NBTs can be a powerful tool for promoting green innovation and achieving public health objectives. However, if the current situation remains unchanged, Europe will not be at the forefront of this technological breakthrough. Other countries, including the UK, Switzerland, and Canada, are likely to take the lead, which contradicts Europe’s ambition to excel in the green economy and strengthen its technological autonomy.4 This situation should not be allowed to occur, and it is unnecessary for it to do so.
- In its 2018 ruling on NBTs, the ECJ itself states that mutagenesis techniques “have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record”. See Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018.
- See also EUPVP – Common Catalogue Information System, Raad voor plantenrassen.
- See, for example, European Commission, ‘EU Marketing Requirements’; Euroseeds.
- The UK is about to pass a Genetic Technology Bill which covers precision-bred plants and NBTs and makes the distinction with GMOs (UK Government, 2023). The Swiss parliament decided to ease restrictions on genetic engineering in agriculture (SWI, 2022). Finally, Canada announced in June that genome editing (GEd) technologies used to develop new food products will be regulated as equivalent to conventional technologies and will not require any additional regulatory oversight (Mukhopadhyay, 2022).
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