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Europe Tightens Restrictions on CRISPR Gene-Edited Crops Proponents of the ruling say CRISPR-Cas9 is largely untested

Europe’s highest court ruled July 25 that crops edited with CRISPR technology should face the same tough scrutiny as conventional genetically modified (GM) organisms. [1]

The decision, handed down by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), is a blow to many scientists and other proponents of gene-editing who had hoped that gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 would be exempted from existing European law limiting the planting and sale of GM crops.

Under the ECJ ruling, crops edited with CRISPR and similar technologies are subject to a 2001 directive that was intended for older breeding methods.

Kai Purnhagen, a legal scholar at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands who specializes in European and international law, explained:

“It is an important judgment, and it’s a very rigid judgment. It means for all the new inventions such as CRISPR-Cas9 food, you would need to go through the lengthy approval process of the European Union.”

CRISPR-Cas9 was designed to “snip away” bits of undesirable genetic code and replace them with more desirable ones. The 2001 ECJ directive was intended to apply to the insertion of entire genes, or long stretches of DNA, into organisms. It is supposed to be a very precise technology, but a 2017 study found the gene-editing technique can cause a plethora of unintentional genetic mutations.

Monsanto’s “Roundup ready” corn is an example of a GMO produced using transgenesis, an ‘older’ breeding method. The corn contains genes from a bacteria resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Roundup ready corn is designed to withstand being doused with glyphosate even as surrounding weeds are killed off. (Though in many cases, glyphosate fails to actually kill the weeds.) [2]

Monsanto received the first CRISPR license to modify crops in 2016.

The law exempts organisms whose genomes were modified using mutagenesis techniques, such as irradiation, which introduce changes to an organism’s DNA but doesn’t add foreign genetic material. [1]

The ECJ’s recent decision was made at the request of the French government which, in 2016, asked the high court to interpret the 2001 directive in light of new and emerging plant-breeding techniques.

Mute Schimpf, a food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, one of the anti-gene-editing groups involved in the court case, said:

“These new ‘GMO 2.0’ genetic engineering techniques must be fully tested before they are let out in the countryside and into our food. We welcome this landmark ruling which defeats the biotech industry’s latest attempt to push unwanted genetically modified products onto our fields and plates.” [2]

Related Read: New Genetically Modified CRISPR-Mushroom Bypasses USDA Regulations

In the United States, the government has ruled that GM crops are no different from those produced via traditional cross-breeding and pose no health or environmental threats.


[1] Nature

[2] Smithsonian Magazine


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