This is a discussion article. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Debate. We are working for the European Parliament to take a clear position so that genetic scissors and other new genetic technologies can also be used in the European Union, two MEPs and three Swedish researchers have written.
Complex European Union rules for more than twenty years prevented European agriculture from using modern crops that meet society’s needs. Now, the European Commission has opened the door wide to change legislation. If the EU’s climate and sustainability goals are to be met, safe, healthy and environmentally friendly crops are needed for sustainable and diversified agriculture. Sweden now has a chance to show the way.
Plant breeders and growers have long sought to produce crops that provide a high, stable yield that is resistant to disease and insect infestations, even during droughts or heavy rains. For thousands of years, people relied on what happened automatically in the fields and chose the best plants. With the increase in knowledge in genetics, science has been playing an increasing role in plant breeding since the beginning of the twentieth century.
We are constantly developing better tools to create genetic diversity and new plant varieties that meet consumers’ requirements for quality and environmental friendliness, while providing the necessary conditions for a good economy for farmers.
These new genetic technologies are welcome in large parts of the world, but the European Union has created a strict regulatory framework that makes it difficult to use the technologies. The Crispr-Cas9 gene clipper, which last year received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is also subject to these strict regulations. Although the genetic clipper does not add any foreign DNA but rather uses what is naturally present in the plant, it is almost impossible to use the technology under current EU regulations.
Fortunately, the European Commission also appears to have realized that this is a problem. In addition to the main problem itself – which is that the European Union makes it difficult for important tools that can contribute to sustainable development – it also becomes impossible to maintain regulation in practice because some crops and products produced with genetic clippers are indistinguishable, even at the molecular level. , From their traditional counterparts.
So it is not possible to prove which method was used, products cannot be traced, labeling is impossible and products imported from countries where genetic engineering is permitted, such as the USA, Canada, Argentina and Brazil, cannot be distinguished from products within the European Union where this is not permitted.
After Brexit, the UK began discussions to be more lenient on genetics in plant breeding, and in Africa Kenya and Nigeria are leading the development, but the largest investments are in China. New products are being developed all over the world, but not in the European Union.
It is gratifying that the debate within the European Union is now gaining momentum and that new legislation is needed. Legislation that permits, but does not prevent, plant breeders from using the best available methods. Today, plant breeders are forced to use inferior methods, although the results with the new methods are the same or even better.
We are many researchers who have referred to this for several years, and from a political point of view we have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that EU legislation is outdated. But there is still strong and unscientific political opposition that can now be tempered after the European Commission reopens the debate.
Publicly funded researchers have already used genetic scissors in a number of applications that could be of great benefit to society, farmers and the environment:
• Leaf rot is one of the main threats in potato cultivation, and it is a pest that also often affects the hobbyist grower. About a third of Swedish agriculture use uses fungicides to control leaf rot. There are now “GM” potatoes that are resistant to leaf rot – a clear environmental benefit.
• In a European project, plant breeders and researchers are producing wheat that is resistant to several fungal diseases. The goal is to halve the use of fungicides in wheat cultivation, which is the second largest volume of these agents in Sweden.
We are working for the European Parliament to take a clear stance so that genetic shears and other new genetic technologies can also be used in the European Union, so that the results benefit European farmers and consumers. With regard to the EU’s farm-to-table food strategy, it is important that crops produced with the use of new technologies also meet the needs related to local small-scale farming. The example above with potatoes that are resistant to leaf rot can be critical to a major investment in organic production.
The decision is urgent if we are to achieve the ambitious climate goals set in the European Green Zone as the European Union will strive to become the world’s first climate neutral continent. If political decisions are delayed, research projects run the risk of collapse and transfer of commercial investment to other parts of the world.
When the EU agriculture ministers meet on Wednesday, May 26, they will discuss for the first time a Commission report that proposes changing the law. We assume that our Minister of Rural Affairs, Jenny Nelson, will work hard to maintain Sweden’s positive attitude towards these new technologies.
in it Swedish Food Strategy As of 2017, it has been established that it is the general characteristics of each individual crop and its impact on human, animal and environmental health that must be evaluated regardless of the plant breeding technique used. The government should now seize the opportunity and confirm this position also at the level of the European Union.
Through joint efforts, we will contribute, through research and political will, to a Europe heading towards a greener future.
Eric Bergkvist, MEP (S)
Jessica Boulevard, MEP (M)
Denise EricksonResearcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Stefan Janson, Researcher at Umeå University
Jens SundstromResearcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences