NZ Farmer - Gene editing is GM, European court rules

Written by Esther Taunton

Europe's highest court has imposed strict regulations on gene-edited crops, a move that could stifle Kiwi innovation, scientists say.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled this week that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same regulations as genetically modified organisms (GMO).

While older GMO technology typically adds new DNA to a plant or animal, gene editing involves precise modification of small sections of DNA.

The court ruling means crops created with the help of gene editing would be subject to the same rules as GMO crops and food produced from those crops would need to be labelled as GMO.

Otago University geneticist and director of Genomics Aotearoa, professor Peter Dearden, said gene editing was a far more accurate way to make a mutation than standard GMO.

"The problem is that we, and the EU, yet again, are trying to regulate technologies rather than outcomes," he said.

"In the end, the key things to test are the risks and benefits of the organism to be released.  Surely this is more important than the way it was made.

"What worries me, and our EU colleagues, is that these determinations will stop innovation in gene editing in New Zealand or the EU."

That could mean New Zealand went without useful technology, Dearden said.

"That loss of capability and capacity will mean we will lose the ability to deploy a technology that, if well used, carefully assessed, and appropriately regulated, could be immensely beneficial to New Zealand in health, agriculture and conservation."

Barry Scott, professor of molecular genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the Royal Society Te Apārangi gene editing panel had similar concerns.

Subjecting the new technologies to the same rules and regulations as older technologies didn't appear to take into account the increased scientific knowledge and precision associated with new processes, he said.

"It maintains a process of 'technology-based' regulation rather than 'outcome-based' regulation which should be the basis of a sound risk management decision making process," Scott said.

"Such regulation will stifle innovation and development and make it very difficult for the agriculture sector to develop breeding solutions to a rapidly changing environment and therefore enhance the risks of real issues around food security associated with new diseases and the impacts of climate change."

Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Kieran Elborough said it was important to note the decision was a ruling on where the technology sat within existing regulations.  It was not a scientific paper detailing the safety or efficacy of gene-editing technologies

"The decision by the EU court deals specifically with how this technology is regulated in Europe. This is an example of the challenges faced by regulators as potential new solutions to important issues such as food sustainability and security in the face of a growing population and climate change emerge."

Elborough, general manager of science, new cultivar innovation at the Crown Research Institute said it would be interesting to see whether new, more detailed regulations developed to restrict or enable gene editing or other new technologies around the world, including in New Zealand.

"Gene editing is a relatively new technology and Plant & Food Research is investigating how we could apply this technology in plants, as proof of concept in containment. It's important that we understand the potential of this technology and how this could be applied to benefit New Zealand. This will continue to inform any discussion in this country."