Genome editing (GE) is a set of molecular biology techniques that allow selective mutations of one or several genes in a very precise and targeted manner. Out of these techniques, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR/Cas) and Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) are those mostly used in modern crop breeding.
Genetic engineering has several advantageous over classical breeding, including speed, precision and allowing introduction of traits that are not be possible via conventional breeding programmes. Although GE could potentially provide a major contribution to ensuring food security in the future there are also societal concerns about genetic modification of crops. These include off-target mutations, large DNA deletions and unintended molecular changes near the target sequence, but such off-target effects can also occur using conventional mutagenesis methods.
In current EU legislation, GE plants are considered genetically modified organisms (GMO) under the GMO Directive 2001/18/EC, dealing with the release of GM crops into the environment, as well as Directive EC no. 1830/2003, setting the requirements for labelling and traceability before placing the GM product on the market. The effect of this strict regulatory framework is that GE crops are not readily commercialised in Europe.
The debate is ongoing whether the current GM legislation should or should not apply to GE crops. The main arguments for exempting GE from the GMO Directive are:
GE techniques can allow small changes to be made in the plant genome without inserting any foreign DNA
GE techniques represent a modern version of a traditional mutagenesis that is exempt from the GMO Directive
Targeted traits to improve environmental performance of crops could reduce the need for pesticides, fertilisers or improve water use efficiency
Extra costs arise along the agricultural value chain of GMO due to the high cost of regulation
GE has the potential to speed up crop improvement to support food security and reduce cost of food in the long term
Europe’s capacity for crop innovations would accelerate with more flexible legislation
Adoption of GE in Europe would support state of the art biotech companies and attract talented scientists
Many arguments also exist against exempting GE:
Knowledge gaps and uncertainties related to the safety of new technologies
Potential negative consequences of unintended effects of targeted genetic modification
Loss of control over new GE techniques developed now and, in the future
Potential of GE crops to intensify power imbalances and monopoly positions of large companies at the expense of small farmers
After exempting from GMO Directive, GE crops would not have to be labelled in the frame of Directive EC no 1830/2003.
This is a hotly debated area. The European Commission are currently undertaking extensive work to assess the risks and concerns of society, and consider the advantages of GE. Decisions on how to regulate GE crops in the future are needed to ensure international trade and scientific advancement are not hampered, and routes to develop future proofed climate resilient crops can meet food security priorities.