On 25 July 2019, numerous renowned European scientists appealed to the EU to simplify the use of new precision breeding methods to improve crops. This should enable the sustainable development of agriculture and food production in the face of climate change and population growth, according to a public statement to the newly elected EU Parliament and EU Commission. In Austria, the statement was signed by the GMI – Gregor Mendel Institute for Molecular Plant Biology and the CeMM – Research Centre for Molecular Medicine – both institutes of the Austrian Academy of Sciences – as well as by the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST), and the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna.
Controversial ruling by the European Court of Justice
The appeal comes exactly one year after a controversial ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which ruled that plants produced with precision methods such as CRISPR/Cas9 should also be classified as genetically modified organisms. Thus, plants that contain even the smallest CRISPR-mediated alteration, which can also arise spontaneously in nature, fall under the GMO legislation of 2001 and are subject to a complex and expensive approval procedure that only large multinational companies can afford. Researchers fear that investment in EU research will decline and breeding efforts by smaller companies will be prevented.
At the same time, plants produced with far less precise conventional methods of gene modification - for example by chemicals or radiation - are exempt from regulation. These methods produce hundreds to thousands of random mutations in plant genomes and have long been used in breeding. However, they subsequently require time-consuming and costly selection and backcrossing in order to remove the hundreds of unwanted mutations. "The new methods, such as CRISPR/Cas9, allow precision breeding in which the same positive genomic changes can be achieved without the accompanying genomic damage," said Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, group leader at the Academy’s GMI.
Furthermore, the minimal genetic changes made through new precision methods cannot be distinguished from the same mutations which occurred naturally or were induced by chemicals or radiation. This implies that the current EU GMO legislation cannot be enforced on such imported products, in spite of the fact that approval of such cultivars developed within the EU is hampered by the GMO approval process.
Growing world population, ongoing climate change
The world population is growing and many plant species are threatened by longer periods of drought due to climate change. The signatories therefore urgently call for an adaptation of the outdated GMO legislation and harmonisation with other countries in order to facilitate plant breeding by research institutes and smaller producers in the EU.