Interview: EuropaBio head calls for new EU approach to ag technologies
EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, has been a vocal opponent of EU efforts to regulate gene-edited crops in the same way as ‘traditional’ genetically modified (GM) crops.
IEG Policy recently spoke to the organisation’s Secretary General, Joanna Dupont-Inglis, about her organisation’s views on EU policy on genetic technology, the most promising applications for new forms of genome-editing, and how the sector has not always helped itself in its battle for societal acceptance.
This interview features in IEG Policy’s new special report titled ‘Smart Solutions for Food and Farming: A Policy Perspective’. Subscribers can get a copy by visiting the Reports section via this hyperlink.
Non-subscribers – see the bottom of the article for details on how to claim your copy of the report.
IEG Policy: Why, in essence, do you object to the ECJ Court ruling in July 2018 that gene-editing techniques should be covered by Directive 2001/18?
Joanna Dupont-Inglis (pictured): In short, we believe that this ruling could cause European life science innovation to grind to a halt. And we’re not the only ones that feel this way. Europe’s world-leading scientific community is also calling for change.
This is because the ruling equates all genome-edited products with GMOs, even if no genetic material has been inserted. But the EU’s approval system for GMOs has already prevented farmers from accessing products that have been used safely for decades in other parts of the globe and is so slow and expensive that even import authorisations represent an insurmountable hurdle for SMEs and public institutions.
Any products classified as GMOs have little chance of ever gaining fair market access in the EU.
EuropaBio firmly believes that, in order to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, a proportionate, fit-for-purpose and science-based approach to modern technologies, such as innovative biotechnology and life sciences, is essential.
Are European companies and institutes still active in developing new products or processes based on genome-editing? Or has that development effectively been stifled by the regulatory framework?
Joanna Dupont-Inglis: SMEs and publicly-funded innovators have the biggest share of genome-edited organisms ready to offer to the market and will now likely be unable to do so in the EU. This helps to explain the strong reactions from scientists and SMEs from across Europe. Some companies and public researchers are losing financing and their projects for the EU are being put on hold or withdrawn.
Companies with a global footprint have shifted funding away from EU-focused products towards projects for other regions. For example, KWS (a German seed company) and HZPC (a Dutch potato trader) have confirmed that they will have to move part of their genome editing R&D abroad.
As such, the EU is undercutting its potential to compete in a global market and to reap the benefits of its own innovation in this field.
What do you see as the most promising potential applications of genome-editing for boosting agricultural technology?
Joanna Dupont-Inglis: The private and public sectors are using the tools of genome editing to develop pest and disease resistant fruit and vegetables, products (eggs, milk and wheat) with lower allergenic potential, healthier soybean oils that reduce trans-fats, cereals (maize and wheat) that use water more efficiently, as well as crops with improved yields and those that can reduce waste, among other improvements.
It is worth noting that genome editing also has many promising applications in other fields, including the development and production of medical treatments and diagnostic agents that can improve and save millions of lives; and bio-based chemicals and products that decrease dependence on fossil carbon.
If granted access, European farmers could soon grow a new generation of more climate resilient and more nutritious crop varieties, crops with higher quality and yields, which could help, inter alia, to reduce the EU protein deficit.
What would you consider to be an appropriate mechanism for assessing the safety and efficacy of new products or processes based on genome-editing – if not Directive 2001/18?
Joanna Dupont-Inglis: We think that Directive 2001/18 should deal primarily with transgenic organisms, i.e. organisms with added genetic material. However, products which are not transgenic, and which are comparable or indistinguishable from those produced by natural processes and conventional techniques, should not be treated like transgenic products.
The regulation would then depend on the product type. For example, conventional seeds are covered by many regulations, including the EU’s plant variety legislation.
It could be argued that the problem with Directive 2001/18 is not the directive itself, it’s the fact that governments keep voting to block GM applications under that directive. Why has the industry been so unsuccessful in persuading the public, and governments, of the benefits of biotechnology?
Joanna Dupont-Inglis: Indeed, the existing system for GMOs in the EU could and should work much more smoothly, even within the existing Directive. The refusal of certain member states and decision-makers to support approvals of thoroughly risk-assessed GM plants which are proven to be as safe as conventional plants does significant damage by undermining trust in science and innovation generally.
As an industry, we recognise that in the past we may have been naïve, thinking that the benefits of the technology will speak for themselves. Misinformation and backlash against science, academia and expertise is currently unfolding across Europe’s political landscape. This is a reality which the biotech sector has been familiar with for decades.
But science and scientific consensus have always been our mainstay, and we will continue to provide fact-based information through a variety of mainstream channels and in various languages, as widely as possible, including on the benefits of GMOs. We also plan to provide more information about genome-edited products which are not transgenic.
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