14.08.19 11:44

Open statement on European legislation on genetic engineering

HHU plant scientists take a stance on precision methods in breeding research

By: A.C. / Editorial staff

In an open statement issued today, European scientists have appealed to the European institutions to simplify the use of modern genome editing procedures in plant breeding. The statement is signed by Prof. Dr. Andreas Weber from the Institute of Plant Biochemistry as well as spokespersons from the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences CEPLAS and other plant researchers at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU).

Corn is an important crop that contributes significantly to global nutrition. (Photo: HHU / Andreas Weber)

The open statement was issued in response to the ruling by the European Court of Justice on 25 July of last year that plants obtained by precision breeding techniques like CRISPR-Cas are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the same way as transgenic plants. Accordingly, they are subject to the strict EU legislation on GMOs from 2001 which contains, among other things, stringent provisions for inspection and application before GMO plants are released.

The signatories of the open statement point out that these strict provisions make it much more difficult to use precision breeding techniques to develop improved crops. But precision breeding could be an important tool in precisely this area. It is urgently needed in order to create adapted forms of crops that can be used to master the challenges facing future food supply, namely a growing global population, a partial lack of supply of important nutrients and global warming with the ensuing problems such as rising temperatures, erosion, extreme weather events, drought and flooding.

Conventional breeding techniques are reaching their limits when it comes to breeding new crops. These techniques require a very long time in order to cross-breed the combination of several desired properties. By contrast, the CRISPR-Cas method makes it possible to change the plant genome quickly and with surgical precision only at the desired locations. This means that the desired properties can be added to the plant without creating other unintended properties.

“The EU GMO legislation, issued in 2001, no longer correctly reflects the current state of scientific knowledge,” write the authors of the open statement. The rules relate to transgenic plants created by inserting foreign genes into the plant genome.

By contrast, the authors emphasise, “Plants that have undergone simple and targeted genome edits by means of precision breeding and which do not contain foreign genes are at least as safe as varieties derived from conventional breeding techniques.” Conventionally bred plants undergo extensive examinations as part of variety testing, and plants bred using precision breeding techniques should be classified in the same way, according to the authors.

The researchers are using the statement to appeal for a small revision of the European legislation in order to allow plant researchers and breeders to use precision breeding as a tool.

The appeal is supported by a large number of publicly funded research institutes in Germany and other European countries. Alongside Prof. Weber, a range of other researchers from the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences CEPLAS at HHU have signed the statement. The statement can be accessed via the undefinedCEPLAS web pages.

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