The EU Court of Justice recently ruled that organisms obtained by Gene Editing (GE), or more precisely directed mutagenesis, should be treated as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It could be argued that this delays the roll-out of the technology in Europe and buys time for wider consultation. Interestingly, whilst not directly challenging the EU Court of Justice’s decision, the report on the ruling by the EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisors points to the need for greater transparency “where reasons other than scientific evidence inform decision-making, such as ethical, legal, social and economic considerations”. The ruling has generated much debate and opinion, in terms of science, commercial value and peoples’ beliefs. However, there is inevitably a subtext underlying the views that we hear which is coloured by vested interests i.e. ‘Academia’, ‘Big Industry’ or ‘Campaign Organisations.
The core of this debate is in the mechanics of GE and the principled ethical concern of what constitutes an ‘unnatural intervention’ leading to a crop with a novel trait or traits. GE can create changes to DNA that are indistinguishable from those which could be arrived at by natural mutagenesis or induced mutagenesis, but GE can also, if intended, be used to add exogenous DNA. This latter process meets the definition of a ‘classical’ GMO. The new contentious area is not about GE that produces a classical GMO, but about GE that gives rise to an organism that is ‘substantively equivalent’ to what might be produced by natural or induced mutagenesis. Unlike classical GMOs, there is no reliable method that we can use to detect or monitor the presence of ‘substantively equivalent’ organisms produced by GE in the environment or in food. Hence, any public interest that may be served by the legal control of GE organisms (derived by edits not insertions) cannot currently be supported by a test for its presence. Thus, we do not have the facility for directly attributing environmental impact on GE crop cultivation (e.g. gene migration beyond the intended ecology) or providing choice to consumers that take an ethical position to not consume GE food.
Our leading experts within this field have developed an OPINION piece which looks into this area further and considers what this might mean for farmer practices and consumer choice over food origins.
Gene Editing in the context of crops
The Evolving Debate on Gene Editing by Julian Smith & Eleanor Jones - Fera Science Ltd.
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