An unexpected ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has classified a promising gene editing technique as genetic modification and it is therefore banned from use. This decision is being challenged by the farming and scientific community as there are concerns that it will restrict the ability to develop new crops with resistance to disease and resilience to climate change.
What is gene editing?
Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell. A strand of DNA is cut at a specific point and naturally existing cellular repair mechanisms then fix the broken DNA strands. Genome editing techniques can be used to delete sections of DNA or alter how a gene functions: for example, by changing a variant that may give rise to disease to one that functions normally.
Unlike genetic modification it does not involve the inclusion of DNA from another species so the alteration being induced could have happened naturally through genetic mutation.
This distinction is supported by Defra that states:“gene-edited organisms should not be regulated as GMOs if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods”.
Most uses of genome editing have so far been in scientific research – for example to investigate models of human disease. However, the potential applications of these techniques are much wider than just research.
Areas of research and possible applications for gene editing include:
- Crops and livestock (e.g. increasing yield, introducing resistance to disease and pests, tolerance of different environmental conditions)
- Industrial biotechnology (e.g. developing ‘third generation’ biofuels and producing chemicals, materials and pharmaceuticals)
- Biomedicine (e.g. pharmaceutical development, xenotransplantation, gene and cell-based therapies, control of insect-borne diseases)
- Reproduction (e.g. preventing the inheritance of a disease trait)
Farmers and scientists express concern
Farmer Tom Allen-Stevens is working with the National Farmers’ Union: “As a farmer myself, I’m greatly concerned that as a result of this ruling, the fruits of this valuable research may never reach my farm, and that research into gene-edited crops in the UK may cease altogether,” he said.
This view is supported by the scientific community.
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.”
A group of 33 signatories, which also includes farmer and landowner organisations, have sent an open letter to the government requesting 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 33 signatories of the letter are:
John Innes Centre
James Hutton Institute
The Sainsbury Laboratory (Norwich)
Professor Denis Murphy
Professor Ian Crute
National Farmers Union
Tenant Farmers Association
Country Land & Business Association
Linking Environment And Farming
RASE and Innovation for Agriculture
British Society of Plant Breeders
BASF Agricultural Solutions
Agricultural Biotechnology Council
Agricultural Industries Confederation