The European Commission has announced that it will review European Union rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO), potentially paving the way to loosening restrictions on the use of gene-editing technology in the agriculture sector.
A report from the commission said that the use of gene-editing technology, which targets specific genes to promote or repress certain traits, could contribute to future sustainable food production.
The E.U. has a responsibility to protect the rights of farmers to choose what they plant and for people to choose what they eat, and to protect the environment and biodiversity from potential harm from new GMOs.
“The study we [published] concludes that New Genomic Techniques can promote the sustainability of agricultural production, in line with the objectives of our Farm to Fork Strategy,” Stella Kyriakides, the health and food safety commissioner, said.
“With the safety of consumers and the environment as the guiding principle, now is the moment to have an open dialogue with citizens, Member States and the European Parliament to jointly decide the way forward for the use of these biotechnologies in the E.U.,” she added.See Also: Climate Change Is Altering the Nutrient Profiles of the World’s Crops
Julia Kloeckner, the German Agriculture Minister, welcomed the findings of the commission, calling the decision to address a new legal framework around gene-edited crops as an “overdue modernization,” which would help farmers.
However, in the report, the commission also said there were concerns about the safety of gene-edited crops that would need to be addressed as well as issues pertaining to their environmental impact and how they should be labeled.
GMOs, which involve the transfer of a gene from one organism to another to confer the desired trait, are rarely used in the E.U. due to skepticism over their environmental impacts.
Officials in France, which is the E.U.’s largest producer of GMO crops, previously said they supported treating gene-edited techniques differently from GMOs.
However, critics of this idea argue the fundamental issues are the same for both gene-edited crops and GMOs.
“The E.U. has a responsibility to protect the rights of farmers to choose what they plant and for people to choose what they eat, and to protect the environment and biodiversity from potential harm from new GMOs,” said Kevin Stairs, Greenpeace’s E.U. GMO policy advisor.
“The European Commission and national governments must respect the precautionary principle and the European Court of Justice’s decision,” he added. “GMOs by another name are still GMOs, and must be treated as such under the law.”
While olive oil is largely unaffected by the debate surrounding GMOs, with little appetite for experimentation in the industry, gene-editing could reopen an old debate.
In the summer of 2012, a research initiative from the University of Tuscia was brought to an abrupt halt. At issue was the central Italian university’s experimentation with GMO olive trees.
Researchers were trying to create a tree resistant to common fungal and bacterial infections. However, anti-GMO organizations said the project violated E.U. law and it was shut down before any conclusions could be reached. All the trees were destroyed.
About one year later, Xylella fastidiosa began to spread across the southern region of Puglia, Italy’s most productive olive oil-producing region, and has not stopped since. The new debate in Brussels may inspire some to consider gene-editing as a solution to the region’s unabating problem.
Steve Savage, a plant pathologist and agricultural consultant in California, previously suggested that there may be a genetic engineering solution to stop the spread of the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria in California’s vineyards.
“Modern genetic engineering approaches could be very logical ways to protect these particular crops,” he said.
Daniel Dawson contributed to this report.