Europe Faces the Arrival of Super Crops: Navigating the New Era of Gene-Edited Plants

The European Commission's Proposal Sparks Debate between Big Agri, Environmental Campaigners, and Small Farmers

by Federico Coppini
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Europe Faces the Arrival of Super Crops: Navigating the New Era of Gene-Edited Plants

Brussels is in the final stages of developing a law that would legalize the use of new gene-editing technologies for crops throughout the European Union (EU). The EU's stringent regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which were established prior to the emergence of advanced gene-editing techniques, pose significant barriers to cultivating genetically engineered crops.

Moreover, EU member states are allowed to ban GMOs even after they have been deemed safe. The proposed law aims to streamline regulations and facilitate market access for crops developed using "new genomic techniques" (NGTs) such as CRISPR-Cas9.

These techniques enable precise gene targeting without necessarily introducing genetic material from external sources. The proponents of the new rules include multinational corporations like Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva, which dominate the plant breeding sector, as well as smaller companies, scientists, and farmers' groups like Copa-Cogeca.

They argue that the EU risks falling behind the rest of the world in utilizing crops with enhanced traits, such as improved nutrition, efficiency, and adaptability to a changing climate. On the other side of the debate are green lawmakers, environmental advocacy groups, organic farmers, and small-scale agricultural producers, along with over 400,000 EU citizens who have signed a petition against deregulating what they label as "new GMOs." Critics of the proposed law contend that it would further consolidate the power of a few multinational corporations, enabling them to secure patents for crops that could have been obtained through conventional breeding methods, while threatening non-GMO and organic farming practices.

Additionally, concerns persist regarding the safety and long-term impacts of NGTs, which have only been in use for a little over a decade. According to a leaked draft, EU member states would no longer have the authority to ban the cultivation of NGT crops under the proposed law.

The law also simplifies regulations for a subgroup of NGT crops that are considered equivalent to those developed through traditional breeding techniques. These "conventional-like" plants would no longer require GMO labeling and would not be subject to risk assessments by food safety regulators.

The European Commission is set to unveil the proposed law on gene-edited crops, alongside other environmental and sustainability measures under its Green Deal agenda. This package of measures includes legislation on soil health, revisions to food waste and textile aspects in the EU Waste Framework Directive, and regulations pertaining to seeds, plants, and forest reproductive material.

In summary, Europe is at a crossroads as it grapples with the introduction of gene-edited crops. The proposed law aims to ease restrictions and facilitate the adoption of NGTs, while sparking debates between major agribusiness players, environmental activists, and small farmers who raise concerns about corporate control and potential risks associated with these technologies.