When it comes to modern agricultural biotechnology, Europe’s caution has been slowing progress for more than two decades. It started in the 1990s, when Europe began rejecting crops modified using recombinant DNA, or DNA from other species—crops branded as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now it is doing the same for gene-edited crops improved using CRISPR. European scientists have objected to this new blockage, but they are not the only ones paying a price.
Using CRISPR, researchers are now working to make crop plants that have higher yields, resist disease or stress, or are tastier, more nutritious, or more convenient than conventionally bred varieties. As farmers seek to adapt to climate change, gene editing could become an even more valuable tool in agriculture—if regulators will allow it.
Decades ago, it was transgenic modification that seemed poised to help increase drought tolerance, disease resistance, and crop yields, and to curtail insecticide use. But consumers in Europe were scared away from the resulting GMO foods by activist organizations, while governments stifled the products with strict regulation; most farmers there have never planted them. GMO consumer foods are also not imported into Europe, due to a burdensome tracing rule that requires all operators in the marketplace to maintain, for five years, a record of every single GMO they handled, where it came from, and where it went. Rather than take on this logistical nightmare, food companies in Europe reformulated their products completely away from GMO ingredients, and those exporting to Europe now do the same or plant no GMOs at all. In the US, where GMO regulations are more permissive, farmers have planted GMO cotton, plus GMO corn and soybeans (mostly for animal feed and auto fuel), but they voluntarily avoid GMO wheat, rice, and potato, partly for fear of encountering commercial rejections in Europe.
As I discuss in my new book, Resetting the Table, Europe’s policies ignore a consensus among science academies around the world—including in Europe—that GMO crops pose no new risks either to human health or to the environment. Even the European Commission concurs with this view, concluding in a 2010 analysis that “biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Now Europe’s rejection of new agricultural biotechnology is being repeated for gene-edited crops. First reported in 2012, CRISPR should have been less controversial than transgenic work because it does not rely on bringing in genes from unrelated species, and it closely resembles the natural process of genetic mutation. The EU’s own advocate general offered a preliminary nonbinding opinion that CRISPR crops should not fall under the strict regulatory requirements of Europe’s GMO Directive, but the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg (the EU equivalent of the US Supreme Court) concluded in 2018 that gene-edited organisms should be regulated like GMOs.
This ruling hit European crop scientists hard. The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) called the decision a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU.” In October 2020, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities said crops improved through “targeted genome edits, which do not add foreign DNA” were no more dangerous to human health or the environment than crops developed through classical breeding.
If the EU does not modify its GMO Directive to make more room for gene-edited crops, European regulations will again begin constraining a new farming technology worldwide, especially in developing countries that produce for the European market. EASAC emphasized the potential for damage to developing countries that “stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change.”
At a time when progressive Europeans, alongside Americans, have been telling the world to “follow the science” on climate change, and on COVID-19, it is disappointing to see the same principle not applied to crop biotechnology.
Robert Paarlberg is an associate in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Read an excerpt from RESETTING THE TABLE.