If industry plans are given the green light, then plants developed with new methods of gene editing will be marketed and cultivated without any mandatory risk assessment or labelling. In reality, this means that these plants can also spread unnoticed into native populations.
What is the problem?
There is enormous pressure coming from industry and like-minded scientists to exempt genetically engineered plants developed with new methods of genetic engineering from current EU regulation on genetically engineered plants. Already in 2015, the German authorities authorised the release of oilseed rape developed by the US company CIBUS without being regulated as genetically engineered. The CIBUS oilseed rape was developed using new gene editing techniques to make it resistant to herbicides. It was only after a letter was sent by the EU Commission that the release of these plants was put on hold. In March 2017, the Central Committee on Biological Safety in Germany (ZKBS) again discussed similar applications and came to the conclusion that plants engineered with the nuclease CRISPR Cas do not need to be regulated under laws for genetic engineering. This decision was made even though the European Court of Justice is still considering the basic legal status of such plants. Obviously, this is an attempt to create facts before the Court has had a chance to decide.
There are research institutions, such as the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which advocate a similar position to that of the German ZKBS. There is a general underlying problem here: EU research policy is mostly targeted at enhancing research and innovation in the field of biotechnology. At the same time, there is hardly any incentive for research that is focussed on the precautionary principle and the protection of health and the environment. In short, risk research is dominated by companies with a commercial interest in marketing their specific products. Consequently, there is a lack of diversity and heterogeneity in research that is necessary for any political decision-making on the introduction of new, potentially risky technologies. Many scientists are sympathetic to the interests of industry, whilst only very few researchers are interested in exploring the risks in greater depth. This imbalance between huge incentives for new, potentially risky technologies and a lack of risk research being carried out independently of industry is a problem that can only be solved politically.
New methods of genetic engineering, such as the nuclease CRISPR-Cas, can directly intervene in the genome and are, therefore, clearly very different to conventional breeding which works with whole cells or organisms, systems of natural gene regulation and heredity. It is claimed that new methods of introducing genetic changes are more targeted in altering DNA. Nevertheless, in experiments it has been found that these methods regularly lead to unintended effects, and it appears that there are risks even when no foreign DNA is introduced. If these plants are not subjected to mandatory risk assessment, the risks might remain undetected and once they are released into the environment the altered genetic material can spread. In most cases, there are no effective measures available to remove genetically engineered plants from the environment if they spread into native populations.