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Significant gene-editing policy changes seen in Europe
The Ukraine-Russia conflict has demonstrated the fragility and vulnerability of global and European food supply chains.
Around the world, governments in leading agricultural-producing countries are now catching up with the United States, both to better legislate gene-edited (GE) products, as well as differentiate them from the older Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) technology, and its negative connotations to some consumers, commentators, farmers, retailers, politicians and lawmakers.
This is both impacting and influencing government policy, and the in turn the regulatory landscape in various countries is changing, as well as how companies and new technology are developing and evolving in response for future growth opportunities.
Although almost three decades have passed since genetically modified crops (so-called 'GMOs') were widely commercialized, vociferous debate remains about the use of biotechnology in agriculture, despite a worldwide scientific consensus on their safety and utility.
A 2022 study published in GM Crops & Food analyses the volume and tenor of the GMO conversation as it played out on social and traditional media between 2018 and 2020, looking at 103,084 online and print articles published in English-language media around the world as well as 1,716,071 social media posts.
To our knowledge, this is the first comprehensive survey of the shifting traditional and online media discourse on this issue during this time period. While the volume of traditional media coverage of GMOs increased significantly during the period, this was combined with a dramatic drop in the volume of social media posts of over 80%. Traditional media tended to be somewhat more positive in their coverage than social media in 2018 and 2019, but that gap disappeared in 2020.
Both traditional and social media saw trends toward increasing favourability, with the positive trend especially robust in social media. The large decline in volume of social media posts, combined with a strong trend toward greater favourability, may indicate a drop in the salience of the GMO debate among the wider population even while the volume of coverage in traditional media increased.
Overall, these results suggest that both social and traditional media may be moving toward a more favourable and less polarized conversation on agbiotech and gene-edited crops and applications overall.
The European Commission has recently called for increased domestic plantings of grains and oilseeds this year, which will necessitate higher supplies of both conventional and biological crop protection products, as well as other key inputs such as gene-edited seeds, fertilizers, biofertilizers, and insect pheromones for integrated pest management (IPM) methods.
The European Commission recently reaffirmed its conviction that New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) - can contribute to the objectives of European Union (EU) strategies, notably the European Green Deal and the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies. This is in turn influencing policy in France and other member states, as well as the UK and Switzerland, which both mirror EU policies closely.
Traditionally, the EU has adopted legislation based upon the more cautious precautionary principle, which it argues better protects consumers and farmers who don't want GM technologies, while the US has called for more science-based and permissive policies on allowing new crop technologies. But this situation appears to be changing for the better in the EU, according to new public opinion research.
In 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that all organisms produced by biotechnology were to be considered GMOs and to be regulated as such, but change is in the air, likely to be accelerated by the current food security crisis and rising commodity prices and crop shortages, as a result of wider impacts of the Russia/Ukraine conflict.
The UK Houses of Parliament in March 2022 approved draft regulations to simplify the approval process for research trials on plants produced through new breeding techniques (NBTs). The Bill aligns NBTs such as gene-editing with plants produced through traditional breeding rather than the previous alignment with genetically modified plant technology.
Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, approved the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations Bill 2022. That followed assent from the lower chamber earlier this month. It covers only England, and not the devolved province of Northern Ireland and countries, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland remains under European Single Market rules.
The Bill removes the need to submit a risk assessment and seek consent from the Secretary of State before researchers could release, for non-marketing purposes, GM plants that could have been produced by traditional breeding. Those wanting to release GMOs into the environment have to carry out such assessments, as well as obtain ministerial consent.
In the case of NBTs, that requirement has been replaced by the need to give a notice to the Secretary of State with certain prescribed information.
The UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as competent authority ran a public consultation from January to March 2021 and received 6,440 consultation responses. The consultation received no scientific evidence indicating that gene-edited organisms should be regulated as GMOs.
The new regulations amend the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations 2002, taking effect in April 2022. However, England has devolved powers on agriculture and farming policy and spending, which are different from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where policy is generally much more sceptical and cautious from legislators on GM and GE crop cultivation.
Scientists must give notice to DEFRA at least 20 days before the day of release itself. This means genome edited seeds could be in the ground as early as May 2022.
The British Society of Plant Breeders has welcomed the development, noting that England has aligned itself with Australia, Japan, and the US, in allowing trials of gene edited plants. The Society's chief executive officer, Sam Brooke, commented: "By enabling the trialling of new genetic technologies, we will see a greater opportunity for all sizes of organisation to access these important advances in plant breeding technology." She hopes that the approvals will prove a catalyst for the sector to grow and support plant breeders to improve disease resistance. Rapporteur for the legislation in the Lords, Lord Benyon, said that uptake of field trials has been "low", with estimates suggesting that "no more than two" field trials for gene-edited plants currently happen in England each year.
England's and the rest of the UK's regulations on NBTs were covered by a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in 2018 that all organisms produced by biotechnology were to be considered GMOs and to be regulated as such. Post-Brexit, the UK has left the jurisdiction of the ECJ. The UK government's view is that where genetic alterations and combinations are of the type that are selected for traditional breeding, and where no transgene is introduced, the environmental release of these plants should not be regulated in the same way as the environmental release of GMOs. Parliament has backed that view.
In December 2021, the Swiss Council of States added an exemption covering gene editing technology to its approval for an extension to the national moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops. The exemption would cover plants that are grown with "gene-editing without the incorporation of foreign genetic material" from an extension. That amendment to a moratorium extension on GM crops has gone back to Parliament.
The Swiss council of states has accepted a compromise proposal to its proposed exemption covering gene-editing technology from an extension to the national moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops. The move should allow the moratorium on GM and gene-edited crops to be extended again until the end of 2025, but with a plan to separate gene editing from GM crops within the period. The council of states represents the nation's cantons.
Also in 2021, the Swiss Parliament's "grand chamber" voted to extend the moratorium on commercialisation of GM crops - including of gene-edited crops - by another four years. The last moratorium was due to end at the close of last year. However, the council of states voted narrowly in December to exempt gene editing from an extension to the GM moratorium.
The Swiss Parliament and the National Council resisted the counter measure, leading to a compromise proposal. Earlier this month, the Council of States approved that compromise proposal from the Parliamentary Commission for Economy, Education and Culture (WBK-N). The proposal is that by mid-2024, the Federal Council would present approval rules on how "GMOs without transgenic genetic material" could be exempted from the moratorium. The Federal Council is an advisory body elected by MPs.
A new vote of Parliament is required to accept the compromise position and regulate a new moratorium. The government has run an effective moratorium since the start of the year, promising not to approve any licence applications on GM or gene-edited crop pilot projects.
The Swiss Parliament's news service reported that the Federal Council must present a "risk-based approval regulation" on exempting gene editing technology by mid-2024. However, the technologies must "have added value for agriculture, the environment and consumers compared to conventional breeding methods", according to the WBK-N compromise text.
There are however political divisions. Council of States member Hannes Germann of the conservative People's Party said: "The National Council is taking a big step towards our solution". Andrea Gmür-Schönenberger MP of the centre-right Mitte party was also supportive and welcomed the solution as "a pragmatic middle ground that research and the Council of States could live with". She adds that it is "high time to give these new methods a chance".
Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga also found the solution acceptable. "Now there is enough time to develop the basis for good decisions." Green Party MPs however sought a delay until the conclusion of reports on the subject planned by the state government for the current year and new regulations planned by the EU for dealing with new breeding technologies (NBTs) before committing.
If you are interested in more details of our reports on Gene-Editing, please contact Crop Science special reports publisher Dr Alan Bullion via email at alan.bullion@s&pglobal.com or call 07766 968820.
This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.
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