It's time for rational regulation

Post-Brexit, the UK can lead on developing a sound regulatory system for emerging agricultural techniques

The Biologist 64(4) p10

To many people, herbicide-resistant crops are synonymous with genetic modification and Monsanto. In reality, however, the market is more complex. For example, Bayer has used conventional breeding techniques to create genes conferring herbicide resistance to crops such as canola, cotton and soya. More recently, the American company Cibus developed a herbicide-resistant canola which was developed using gene editing, not GM.

This highlights a mismatch in the EU's regulatory system: from a farmer's perspective these crops differ only in the particular herbicide they are resistant to. To an EU regulator, however, their similarities are irrelevant – what matters is the techniques used to develop them.

GM crops face extensive testing before they are approved for import or cultivation, in complete contrast to crops produced through conventional breeding, which aren't subject to any regulatory approval at all. New breeding techniques, particularly genome-editing tools such as CRISPR, don't fall neatly into either camp, and the result is a regulatory vacuum.

Unlike herbicide-resistant crops created through traditional genetic modification, Cibus's genome-edited canola contains just two mutations, in known locations – it doesn't have a new gene 'inserted' into its genome. Does this make it genetically modified? That depends where you are.

Argentina and the USA are among the countries that have ruled that genome-edited crops aren't subject to the same regulation as GMOs. Europe, however, remains undecided.

The European Commission's analysis of whether new plant-breeding techniques should be considered GMOs was expected in 2015, yet the decision has been repeatedly delayed. With an increasing number of public and private institutions using genome-editing techniques on livestock and crops legal guidance on regulation is urgently needed.

As the UK negotiates the terms of its departure from the EU now is the time to discuss a regulatory system which supports innovation while protecting health and the environment.

Predictably, there are calls to regulate all genome-edited crops under existing GMO regulation, with anti-GMO lobby groups being particularly vocal. For the scientists exploring the potential benefits of genome editing to agriculture, however, this would be a disaster.

The effect of the EU's GMO regulatory system has effectively been to prevent the cultivation of GM crops in Europe. If this regulation is applied to genome-edited crops they would no doubt be doomed to the same fate. Many scientists are instead calling for the trait and product to be regulated, not the technology or technique. This would be far more logical for herbicide-tolerant crops, which can create both benefits and challenges to farmers and ecosystems no matter how they were developed.
Regulators should consider environmental challenges – such as the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds – when deciding whether to authorise a crop, not how it was made.

Genome editing has great potential in agriculture, with research ranging from drought-resistant wheat to hypoallergenic eggs. But this potential will only be realised if genome-edited crops and animals are subject to a sound regulatory system.

When designing regulations we need to learn from the GMO debate, including the importance of listening to public concerns. However, it is important not to let loud voices block the development of rational, evidence-based policy.

Regulation as a GMO will do nothing to ensure that genome editing is used to support sustainable agriculture. In fact, it will probably do the opposite – the cost of current regulatory approvals mean that they are restricted to the largest agribusinesses. Humanitarian projects are unlikely to get a look-in.

As with all the scientific challenges and opportunities that accompany Brexit it is important that voices are heard. Starting an open, clear and respectful debate can help ensure that our society is comfortable in adopting a regulatory system that is based on evidence not fear.

Rebecca Nesbit's book on GMOs, Is that Fish in Your Tomato? is out now from Ockham Publishing

Rebecca Nesbit is an ecologist and author