Leading scientific institutions including the John Innes Centre are today calling for the Government to address the implications of a European Union judicial ruling that classes gene-edited crops as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
An open letter, signed by research institutions, universities, plant breeders, crop agronomy companies and biotech multinationals, was delivered to Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove on Thursday (13 September).
The group of 33 signatories, which also includes farmer and landowner organisations, collectively undertakes hundreds of millions of pounds of private and public-funded research and development into plant science every year, employing hundreds of scientists and crop specialists across the UK.
The letter requests a round-table meeting involving all stakeholders and Defra to agree a clear way forward on research and future use of new plant-breeding technologies.
It adds: “We feel there are significant questions that must be addressed urgently by government if the UK is to retain its strength in plant genetics, to use innovation to boost productivity and competitiveness, and to meet the challenges of nutritional health and environmental protection.”
The move follows the shock ruling in July by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that concluded organisms obtained by newer forms of mutagenesis, such as gene-editing, are GMOs.
Unlike traditional genetic modification which may involve insertion of foreign DNA into an organism, gene-editing is a group of technologies involving the precise replacement of one DNA sequence with another.
This ruling went against the recommendation to exempt new techniques, made by the EU Advocate General in January. It also differs from the position taken by other global authorities, such as those in the US and China, that they should be treated as bred by conventional techniques.
Defra has since reiterated its view that “gene-edited organisms should not be regulated as GMOs if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods”.
Professor Wendy Harwood, of the department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre said: “The CJEU decision could have major negative impacts on our ability to respond rapidly to the challenges of providing sufficient, nutritious food, under increasingly challenging conditions.”
Professor Nick Talbot, director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, described the ruling as: “a retrograde step that is not based on any scientific evidence,” adding. “Precise modern gene editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome. To classify gene edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.”