EU urged to relax GM restrictions

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Published: Tuesday 28th October 2014 by The News Editor

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Strict European controls on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be swept away to open the door to new crop improving technologies, Government-funded experts have said.

In a new position statement, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRC) challenged the current precautionary approach that has effectively stifled GM crop farming in the EU.

The body, which allocates Government funding for biotech research, highlighted the growing importance of “genome editing” technology that allows precise and targeted genetic changes without having to switch DNA between species.

Such advances blurred the line between GM and non-GM breeding techniques, it was claimed. This made fair assessments of GM applications difficult under the existing regulatory framework, which focused on the methods used to produce a new crop variety rather than a plant’s actual characteristics.

The EU approach to GM was in contrast to the process for approving new medicines, which weighed up benefit and risk by looking at the active molecules in a drug, not the way they were produced.

The statement, from a panel of experts appointed by the BBSRC, says: ” Novel genetic techniques have been developed in recent years and are advancing rapidly. They include techniques commonly referred to as ‘genome editing’ that allow targeted changes to be made to genomes, such as adding, removing or replacing DNA at specified locations ..

“The new techniques offer the possibility of making genetic changes more precisely than previously possible by targeting them to specific sites in the genome.

“In some cases it will be impossible to tell what method was used to produce a new crop variety, because exactly the same DNA changes could be introduced using a variety of conventional breeding or newer techniques. The boundaries between established genetic modification (GM) and non-GM techniques will become increasingly blurred as techniques develop.

“This raises questions about how new crop varieties should be regulated. A regulatory system based on the characteristics of a novel crop, by whatever method it has been produced, would provide more effective and robust regulation than current EU processes, which consider new crop varieties differently depending on the method used to generate them.”

BBSRC chief executive Professor Jackie Hunter said: “With its excellent plant science research, the UK is well placed to lead the world in crop improvement and to facilitate the step-change in agricultural productivity that will be required to feed the world sustainably. There is no doubt that improved crop varieties will be produced using these new methods around the world and commercialised in countries outside of the EU. If we want the UK and the EU to continue to be world-leading in this area, we must ensure there is appropriate regulation in this changing landscape.”

Professor Ottoline Leyser, from Cambridge University, who chaired the expert panel, said: “This is an exciting time for plant science with rapid advances in our understanding of gene function and in the technologies available to use this understanding for crop improvement. These developments present a number of important questions about how the benefits from these new techniques can best be realised, requiring active engagement of a wide range of stakeholders.”

Currently the insect-resistant maize MON 810, made by the agrochemical company Monsanto, is the only GMO cultivated commercially in the EU.

Published: Tuesday 28th October 2014 by The News Editor

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