A joint statement supporting science-based regulations for gene editing by the U.S. and 12 other countries is intended as a rejoinder to the European Union’s more restrictive approach to the technology, experts say.
Supporters of biotechnology hailed the statement, which was also signed by Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, Uruguay and Vietnam, as a step toward preventing unnecessary trade barriers to gene-edited crops.
Critics of existing regulations for biotechnology, on the other hand, were skeptical of the statement’s intent, which they suspect is to push forward with gene-editing crops without fully understanding the consequences.
Both sides agree that the policy statement was largely motivated by the European Union’s July decision to regulate gene-edited crops as if they were traditional genetically modified organisms that incorporate foreign DNA.
Comparing gene editing — which allows genes to be removed or altered more precisely — to these older biotech techniques is like comparing modern smartphones to rotary telephones, said Mary Boote, executive director of the Global Farmer Network, which favors better access to biotechnology in agriculture.
“They’re clearly quite different,” Boote said.
When the European Court of Justice issued its ruling equating gene-editing with GMOs, “that put everyone on their feet” since it suggested the newer generation of crops will be subject to the same restrictions and trade barriers, she said.
To have the 13 countries step up and say that gene-editing regulations should be science-based is a “very big deal” in offering a counterpoint to the EU’s position, Boote said.
It can be a struggle to communicate how these new technologies will actually help agriculture become more sustainable, she said. “These new tools will play a significant part of that.”
Countries in South America, such as the agricultural “powerhouses” of Argentina and Brazil, see the opportunity that gene editing poses for their economies and are willing to be less restrictive, said Andrew Conner, senior manager of international releations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
“The end goal is creating that policy environment that allows innovation to happen,” he said. “We are seeing progress in other parts of the world.”
Even within Europe, scientists and industry sectors are calling for improved access to these new tools, Conner said. “There are certainly many segments of European soicety that would like to see this technology brought forward and its benefits reach the commercial marketplce.”
The Center for Food Safety, which is critical of U.S. biotech rules, thinks it’s disingenuous to claim gene-editing achieves the same outcomes as conventional breeding, just more quickly.
“Then we should be challenging the patents of these companies, because it’s regular breeding,” said Jaydee Hanson, the group’s senior policy analyst.
The USDA doesn’t treat gene-edited crops as regulated biotech articles as long as they don’t incorporate genes from plant pests.
Hanson said the joint statement by the 13 countries was provoked by the EU’s position because they don’t want gene-edited crops to come under increased international regulatory scrutiny.
“What they’re saying is there are not many, if any, regulations needed,” he said.
The Center for Food Safety doesn’t believe gene-edited crops should never be marketed, just that the consequences for the organism and environment should be better understood, Hanson said.
Gene-editing often isn’t quite so precise and can alter unintended genes as well as the targeted DNA, he said, which is why USDA should require an organism’s full genome to be mapped before such crops are commercially released..