What the EU got wrong about new gene-editing techniques

“The GMO ruling is a barrier for innovation”

Under European law, crops and food created using new gene-editing techniques are subject to the same strict regulation as conventional GMOs. According to microbiologist John van der Oost, the ruling is a big setback for innovation in Europe.

John van der Oost is a Professor of Microbiology at Wageningen University & Research, in the Netherlands, and is among the pioneering researchers who have unravelled the mechanism of gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas. CRISPR-Cas makes it possible to ‘edit’ genetic material, making efficient, targeted changes to DNA. For example, scientists can activate or remove specific traits in plants. Van der Oost received the prestigious Spinoza Prize for his work with the new breeding techniques, and he is a staunch defender of the technology.

An “outrageous” ruling

Van der Oost describes the European status of CRISPR-Cas as “outrageous.” Last year the European Court of Justice ruled that new plant breeding techniques require the same treatment as other GMOs in Europe. As a result, there are strict rules for bringing products bred or developed using CRISPR-Cas – vegetable and plant-based products in particular – to the European market. “It’s unbelievable that the technology is being perceived as less safe than the classic breeding technologies,” says Van der Oost.

The microbiologist finds it frustrating to see that regulators in the EU are more conservative than in the United States or Japan. “In these countries development continues. For Europe’s competitiveness this is disastrous. The ones who want to innovate are penalized. The Court favors the ones who hold back innovation.”

“This is disastrous for Europe’s competitiveness”

- John van der Oost, Wageningen University

CRISPR-Cas is a truly ground-breaking development. “It is immense how many applications are possible with CRISPR-Cas. It can be used in plant breeding, but also in microbiology – for example, for producing biofuels or medicines – and in human health as gene therapy.” According to Van der Oost, it is as safe as current plant breeding methods.

Transforming the tomato

He illustrates the safety of CRISPR-Cas with an example of tomato breeding. “To get to the tomato we can buy in the supermarket today, years of classic breeding were needed from the wild tomato that grows in the jungle in South America. The DNA of different tomatoes were changed over many years, initially by crossing varieties, and for the past 50 years by exposing seeds to radiation or chemical substances. From all these changes, ultimately about 2 percent of the genetic information of the wild tomato has changed to get the tomato we can buy in the supermarket.”

The same tomato can be created with CRISPR-Cas. But instead of taking millions of adjustments in genetic material over centuries, says Van der Oost, the new technology can achieve the same results much more quickly. “In my opinion it is unimaginable that CRISPR-Cas is perceived as less safe than other breeding techniques that make a lot more changes in the DNA.”

He adds that, in particular, the small changes CRISPR-Cas makes can also occur spontaneously in nature. He thinks the EU pays too much attention to the process of the new gene-editing technique. “It is about the end product. With minimal adjustment we can breed tomatoes from the wild tomatoes which are better in all kinds of properties.”

Biodiversity

Van der Oost also sees benefits for biodiversity and species variety from using CRISPR-Cas. “Because we can determine the characteristics of tomatoes very accurately, we can develop many different varieties based on the many wild varieties.” Advantages include tomatoes that can withstand certain bacterial and fungal diseases, but also tomatoes that are tastier, that have a higher nutritional value or a higher yield.

“Techniques like CRISPR-Cas can make the difference when it is needed to produce enough food in the future, also in places where it is hard now to grow food.” Van der Oost offers the example of crops that are resistant to salt water or drought: “When you know the gene that is responsible for that certain trait, it is relatively simple to adjust that with CRISPR-Cas.”

“We need to explain that change in DNA is a natural phenomenon”

- John Van der Oost, Wageningen University

Ethical questions

CRISPR-Cas is not only a game changer for plant breeding. There could be applications to prevent or cure diseases in humans. “If we can do it without making mistakes, in my opinion, there is nothing against it,” says Van der Oost. “That is why it must be certain that there are no negative effects paired with it.” He cites the recent example of the Chinese babies who were born after their embryos were edited with CRISPR-Cas. The scientific community widely condemned the premature use of the technology. “If that goes wrong, it is not only tragic for the babies, but that will also lead to significant delay in the development of CRISPR-Cas in general.”

Some have ethical objections to CRISPR-Cas, though Van der Oost believes these are largely groundless. “Opponents rely on non-scientific facts. That is why we need to keep explaining how it works, that it is safe and that change in DNA is a natural phenomenon.”

Starting a conversation

The microbiologist uses some of the money he won from the Spinoza Prize to fuel discussion at high schools about gene technology. “We have to start at the base when explaining how the technique works. Discussion and opinion about GMO in Europe is stuck. Supporters and opponents have put their heels in the sand. Neither do politicians seem to know the scientific facts. I would like to talk with them to explain.”

There is also a prevailing opinion that GMO gives an advantage to big companies like Bayer. Van der Oost: “The Court’s ruling plays into the hands of those big companies. The smaller companies cannot meet the stringent safety requirements that apply to CRISPR-Cas because of the high costs. The big companies can.”

To find a compromise in the discussion, Van der Oost proposes drawing a line at the insertion of foreign genes as opposed to making changes to existing DNA. He argues that simple adjustments to eliminate genes also occur in nature, and should not be part of the GMO regulation. “It is like this in the US and Japan. It seems to me like a very reasonable agreement to still be able to use the many advantages of CRISPR-Cas.”

F&A Next

At F&A Next 2019, May 15-16, John van der Oost will share key insights on how the EU ruling will affect innovation and farming in his talk “Embracing gene editing: EU versus Rest of World.” This premier F&A innovation event in the Netherlands connects innovative food and agriculture start-ups with investors. Register today!