By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy
This week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on the regulatory status of plants developed through mutagenesis (which includes many modern plant breeding innovations). They determined that these technologies do fall under the jurisdiction of EU laws regarding GMOs. And with that, they landed a serious blow to the future of agricultural innovation.
Earlier this year, an advocate general of the ECJ wrote an opinion stating that gene-editing techniques that did not result in foreign DNA in the final product should not be considered GMOs under EU GM legislation. This ruling created hope that regulations on promising new technology like CRISPR-Cas9 would not be overly burdensome. Those hopes were dashed by this new ruling though.
This ruling, based solely on the process used to develop a plant and ignoring the safety and effectiveness of the plant itself, is shortsighted and irresponsible. A ruling like this will have a chilling effect on European plant breeding efforts, and by extension will have negative economic and environmental consequences for the continent. Those effects will likely trickle to other plant breeding programs around the world because if a plant cannot get into Europe easily, then all countries that export to the EU will be hesitant to adopt new technology. Additionally, the EU is often used as a benchmark for other countries considering their own regulations on biotechnology and plant breeding, so this interpretation may be adopted more widely.
The EU, as a group of developed countries, can weather those negative effects of restrictive regulation. But this is one more stumbling block to food security that other parts of the world cannot afford. The privilege to limit food options based on non-scientific consumer fear is one that the EU and other developed countries take for granted. But these technologies can have a massive impact on production and nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. With that in mind, rather than constraining new research, we should be supporting these efforts as much as possible. And one crucial avenue of support is providing science-based regulations that do not impede trade flows. As global economic leaders, this is not an option; it is a responsibility.
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