No super-vegetables for Europe

The gene-editing tool CRISPR could help farmers overcome the challenges of malnutrition. But European legislation has closed the door to that technology.

The take-away

  • With CRISPR, you can for example grow tomatoes with higher vitamin content.
  • But Europe is lagging behind, with 75% of research on gene-editing tools for plants being conducted in the US and China.

The United Nations set a goal to eradicate hunger worldwide by 2030. However, the number of undernourished people globally increased by 15 million between 2016 and 2017, totalling 821 million. Many European researchers hope this trend can be reversed, but they fret over a regulatory environment that is anything but helpful.

As food safety grapples with climate change, biotechnology is coming up with new solutions to rethink food production. “Global food systems face many challenges, including the disconnect between humans and food production”, says Roberto Flore, manager of the FoodLab at the Technical University of Denmark’s Skylab. “When it comes to new technologies transparency and ethics must be included in the discussion.”

Among novel technologies, one of the most promising – but also most controversial – is the CRISPR gene-editing technique. Developed in 2012, it is used to inactivate, replace or alter gene expression by snipping precise segments from a targeted DNA sequence. And all that at low cost: kits are available online for less than €100, and you don’t have to be an expert to use them.

Tomatoes with more vitamins

By enhancing a food’s nutritional value or resistance to disease, CRISPR has spurred a frenzy of research in plants. Some believe that it is a key tool for fighting global warming. In 2016, a US laboratory cultivated a common white button mushroom that does not turn brown. This year, Chinese researchers developed a wild tomato similar to commercially available varieties but that produces bigger fruit, packs more vitamin C and can be stored longer. The new variety offers all that, while managing to hold the benefits of a wild tomato, including resistance to disease and salinity. Another example is gliadin-free wheat developed in Spain in 2018. Gliadins are the class of proteins behind gluten intolerance.

In response to these advances, one may wonder: are these products genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Some scientists say no. “Unlike conventional GMOs grown using transgenesis – the process of introducing a foreign gene – CRISPR-modified foods can be very close to plants commonly found in nature, with their natural genetic make-up. “There may be no sign of human intervention,” says Stefan Jansson of Umeå University in Sweden. The method is called site-directed mutagenesis because the procedure affects a very precise, pre-determined location in the DNA string.

Lack of traceability

The European Union’s Court of Justice disagrees. In July it ruled that these crops would be subject to the same regulations as GMOs, requiring each product to undergo a complex and costly approval process before going to market. The verdict was due mainly to the possibility that modified varieties could be created more quickly than ever before.

The scientific community took notice of the ruling, raising the issue of inconsistency between the current definition of GMOs and the type of genetic modifications being carried out using these new techniques. Says Gérard Escher, a biologist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL): “The genetic difference between modified and natural organisms is virtually invisible. CRISPR varieties could be considered natural variants. They’re harder to identify as traditional GMOs. They need another regulatory framework.”

The problem is that these organisms are not defined as genetically modified in the US,  and there no strict documentation on them is required. Imported crops are therefore potentially untraceable, despite the application of the GMO directive. In November, the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors from the European Commission released a statement highlighting this discrepancy. It is a critical issue, underlining the need to rethink the regulatory framework.

Lagging behind in Europe

Escher raises another concern: that Europe is falling behind in expertise on genetically modified plants. China and the US currently enjoy a large lead in research on gene editing for plants. The two countries are responsible for more than two-thirds of scientific publications, well ahead of Europe. That disparity is likely to widen now that gene edited products fall under GMO legislation, Escher says. “There is a legal framework for GMO research, but it is much more costly. Open-field farming requires very specific security measures, with guards and barbed wire.” Another limiting factor is that young researchers are not motivated to work in the field, since it lacks commercial potential and people have a negative perception of GMOs. “Young people are more driven to create medical start-ups than to improve spinach,” he says.

In 2010, some 53% of Europeans believed that GMOs were dangerous for the environment. “In Europe, farmers and the rest of the population have never felt a real need for first-generation GMOs which were resistant to herbicides,” says Escher. “They’re not very useful to European farmers who, unlike American farmers, practise polyculture.”

Jansson adds that “scientists must communicate about their research and show its potential.” This is crucial for maintaining legitimacy among the general population. Although biotechnology is currently making a lot of attractive promises, Escher warns that we need to maintain perspective. “What is important is the whole ecosystem: how crops are planted, under what regulations, where profits are going, who owns the intellectual property, what farming system is used, etc. CRISPR won’t change the world, but it can be part of the global response.”

Roberto Flore (FoodLab Manager, DTU Skylab, Office for Innovation and Sector Services), Stefan Jansson (head of Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University, Sweden), Gérard Escher (senior advisor to the president of EPFL), New York Times, Nature, La Libre