EU decision on genome editing has major impact on innovation in crop protection

The European court has ruled that new gene-editing techniques should face the same strict rules as genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Those techniques and especially CRISPR/Cas, are seen as promising ways to improve crop tolerance towards pests and climate stress. Gene editing works by making a very precise and small genetic change in one single gene. The new ruling makes it more difficult or even impossible for companies to introduce new gene-edited crops on the market because GMO registration procedures in the EU require traceability of modified plants. However, for CRISPR crops this is often not possible.

How can CRISPR/Cas affect crop health?

Certain plant traits such as resistance and tolerance for diseases or climate stress are inheritable. The genetic material of the plant (also called the genome) defines traits. Due to mutations or modifications in the genome, inheritable traits can change. Mutations occur naturally and are responsible for evolution but can also be induced by men. The use of radiation induces many mutations, randomly spread across the genome. “With CRISPR/Cas, we can make a cut the genome in a specific region. The plant will repair the genome and sometimes, there will be a small error in this process. This error causes a mutation in the region where the cut was made. However, after cutting the genome with CRISPR/Cas, we can also insert another gene in the genome”, explains Prof. Gheysen of Ghent University.

Cutting the genome at the place where the gene for the targeted trait is located, increases the odds of the occurrence of a desired mutation. For example, by inducing a mutation in the genomic region, which makes the plant less susceptible for a certain disease, a developer can obtain in a short time ‘new’ plants which are less affected by the disease.

The impact of the decision on CRISPR Crops

For a long time, academics, NGO’s and other stakeholders have been discussing whether CRISPR/Cas should be classified as a genetic modification technique. The discussion has ended by the decision of the European court that it should. The use of this technique is not prohibited. However, the resulting crops now need to undergo the same very strict and long registration procedures as GMO’s if they are to be approved for sale on the European market. These registration procedures costs a company ±35 million US$, making it much less attractive. In addition to the registration procedure, there is another challenge. “When we use Crispr/Cas to induce mutations without inserting genes, the registration procedure can pose an issue. GMO’s can only be registered when they are traceable. A small mutation will be very hard or even impossible to trace, which makes it (almost) impossible to register CRISPR Crops”, says Prof. Gheysen.

Scientists fear that this decision will reduce the funding for research on the use of CRISPR/Cas in crop development. Alternatively, it is still possible to develop new crops by classic breeding or the use of radiation and chemicals to create genetic variation. These techniques have proven useful, but are less precise and more time-consuming because undesired traits must be eliminated by repeated selection cycles.

Increasing the farmer’s toolbox

During the global IUPAC 2019 international congress on crop protection, which will be hosted by Ghent University, all methods that can contribute to new innovations in the field of crop health will be presented and discussed. Professor Pieter Spanoghe, who chairs this global event concludes: “As scientists we have to focus on the future and look at the merits of many different promising technologies across the world. In the end, farmers need sustainable solutions that work, irrespective of their genetic, chemical, biological or mechanical nature.”