EU decision opens up new genomic technologies

Written by: Karin Montgomery/

The EU Parliament has voted in favor of a proposal that opens up the use of new genomic techniques in plant breeding. The decision can have major effects on food supply as it can increase production, reduce the use of chemicals and adapt our crops to a changing climate.

The genetic scissor was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2020. In research, the genetic scissor is a very important toll. The use of the technology in agriculture in the EU has been made more difficult, as it is covered by EU legislation on GMOs. The proposal that has now been voted through in the EU Parliament elevates genome editing, like the gene scissors, to a separate regulation, but the path towards the change in the law is not crystal clear yet.

– If and when the Council of Ministers decides is uncertain, but hopefully at the end of February. Then everything must be finalized in the trilogy; informal tripartite negotiations between the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament. If there is to be a decision before the EU elections, everything must be finished in April, says Jens Sundström, docent in plant physiology and External Collaboration Specialist in biotechnology with a focus on genetic technology at SLU.

What happens if the proposal does not go through?

– Then it will a reenactment, but my guess is that it won’t happen until Hungary and Poland have hosted the Council of Ministers, at the earliest in autumn 2025.

Long-awaited proposal

The EU Parliament’s decision is welcomed by Erik Andreasson, professor of plant protection and head of the resistance biology unit at SLU.

– The technology has been limited within the EU that it has basically not been used, which is a shame because it is an important tool for environmentally friendly agriculture.

He thinks that the proposed regulatory framework is better than the current GMO legislation, but emphasizes that there are still flaws in the proposal.

– It is good that so-called NGT1, where in principle you do not add genes from species that are not interbreeding, is equated with traditional breeding, says Erik Andreasson.

What does genomic editing mean, and how does it differ from GMOs? To paint the full picture, we first need to look at traditional breeding, which involves crossing plants with desirable traits to enhance those traits. The traditional breeding takes a different amount of time for different plants, depending on how fast they grow. For trees, it can take up to a hundred years, while it goes much faster in agriculture. The unique feature of genome editing is that breeding is significantly accelerated and opens up for combinations and changes based on knowledge of plant physiology.

– The classic breeding will remain, but the new genomic techniques with the gene scissors make it easier to keep up with the development of pathogens and pests, or preferably to stay one step ahead.

Halved use of plant protection products

SLU researchers have come a long way in genome editing of potatoes.  Potatoes are one of the crops that require a lot of plant protection agents, which is challenged by the European Commission’s proposal to halve the use of plant protection agents by 2030. A compilation shows that potato varieties that are resistant to potato leaf mould, would reduce the Swedish potato growers’ costs for plant protection products by 100 million SEK a year.

For example, in a newly started Grogrund project, which aims to produce potatoes with increased resistance to drought in potatoes, results from basic research are now to be rolled out all the way to the business world, where there is great interest.

– A change in the legislation in Europe would ensure that European agriculture does not end up in a bad competitive situation and there will probably be a lot of investment in this, says Erik Andreasson.

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