A European Commission draft proposal could lead to a loosening of regulations long criticized by plant breeders as inhospitable to new genetic engineering techniques such as gene editing.

A draft regulatory document leaked and posted online by advocacy group ARC2020 proposes a streamlined path for certain new genomic techniques, or NGTs. An official proposal is expected early next month.

An “NGT plant,” the proposal says, is “a genetically modified plant obtained by targeted mutagenesis, cisgenesis, intragenesis, or a combination thereof, on the condition that the NGT plant does not contain any genetic material originating from outside the breeders’ gene pool that temporarily may have been inserted during the development of the NGT plant.”

Bayer AG welcomed the news. “To see the European Commission edging toward welcoming gene editing is just a great thing,” Matthias Berninger, senior vice president of public affairs, science and sustainability, told Agri-Pulse at the company’s Crop Science Innovation Summit in New York City.

The document cited a report prepared by the EC two years ago that concluded current regulations do not adequately address NGT plants developed by targeted mutagenesis or cisgenesis.

Matthias-Berninger-Bayer-AG.jpgMatthias Berninger, Bayer AG

The proposal also warned that EU could fall behind international competitors. “Regulatory oversight has been adapted to NGT plants in various non-EU countries already,” it said. “There is a risk that the EU would be to a significant extent excluded from the technological developments and economic, social and environmental benefits potentially generated by these new technologies. This would lead in turn to the weakening of the EU’s strategic autonomy.”

The proposal cited recent events that are driving technological change. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine have … revealed the EU’s external dependencies,” the proposal said.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss have put the focus on long-term resilience and the need for a transition to more sustainable agriculture and food systems,” the proposal says. “In this context, the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork Strategy specifically refers to NGTs as a possible tool for increasing sustainability, provided they are safe for consumers and the environment and bring benefits for society as a whole. NGTs have been identified as also potentially contributing to food security.”

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Farm to Fork foresees dramatic reductions in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides but has been criticized by the agriculture industry on the continent - and around the world - as unrealistic.

Berninger said he thinks the shift in thinking has been helped along by “the realization of how real climate change is.” 

“There's hardly a region in the world that is more that is affected by higher average temperature increases than Europe at the moment,” he said, citing “the pictures of the droughts, the flooding that we've seen in recent years, and the massive challenges to maintain yield.”

Reaction from groups across the political spectrum was mixed. Euroseeds, an industry plant breeding group, criticized the proposal’s complexity, according to ARC2020.

“Euroseeds further criticized the ban on NGT use in organic farming, deeming it ‘illogical and discriminatory,’” the group said, citing a report in Politico. “It also raised questions about the legal foundation for treating herbicide-tolerant NGT crops as conventional GMOs, effectively banning their usage.”

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization said it's hopeful the proposal will lead to progress.

"It is encouraging to see the EU taking steps to create a regulatory framework that incentivizes the innovation we need to meet global challenges, from climate change and the need for more sustainable industrial inputs to improving food security," said 
Nancy Travis, vice president of international affairs at BIO. "We hope that the EU will continue to move further in the direction of a science-based approach to biotechnology, including but not limited to gene editing."

Green groups are already criticizing the proposal. Nina Holland, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, said, “If this proposal would go through, it would mean that these GMOs will no longer be subject to a risk assessment for health and environment, traceability nor labeling. This will increase biosafety risks and abolish consumers’ freedom of choice.”

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Sara Wyant contributed to this report.

This story was updated Wednesday, Jun 21, to include reaction from BIO.