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14 August, 2019 - 20:13 By Jamie Quested

European scientists call for rethink on gene editing to improve food sustainability

Scientists across Europe are calling for a rethink of EU legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in a bid to boost food sustainability.

The John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich are among 126 research institutes to sign an open statement arguing that scientists and plant breeders in the European Union should be able to use gene editing with CRISPR as a faster and more efficient way of producing food sustainably.

Aimed at the newly-elected European Parliament and European Commission, the statement comes one year to the day that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that plants obtained by modern forms of mutagenesis, of which gene-editing is an example, are not exempted from the EU GMO Directive.

The scientists say that gene-editing is quicker, and more precise than conventional breeding, allowing scientists and breeders to target specific genes already in a plant species, to turn genes on and off, for example to rapidly correct unhelpful mutations, a process that could also occur naturally over time. This use of gene editing does not result in the insertion of DNA from other sources in the final plant.

In contrast, genetic modification techniques allow genes from other sources to be inserted into a plant’s genome at a random location. It is subject to rigid European legislation issued in 2001 which is different to legislation in many other nations.

The open statement argues that a small revision of the European legislation will harmonise it with the legal framework in other nations and enable European scientists, breeders, farmers and producers to use tools that produce high yielding crops while decreasing the use of chemicals and water.

Professor Nick Talbot Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, said: “The ruling a year ago was not based on any scientific evidence: to classify gene edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition. We call on the European Parliament and European Commission to reverse this retrograde decision.”

Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre said: “At a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges, it is essential that we can make full use of innovative tools for sustainable food production.”

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