European Union regulatory agencies would not know if gene-edited crops ended up on sale in Europe, because they are too genetically similar to unchanged plants to be detected, a top scientist has said.
Gene editing speeds up traditional breeding processes, allowing insect- or disease-resistant varieties of crops or breeds of animals to be developed quickly by replacing one DNA sequence with another.
Unlike genetic modification (GM), no foreign DNA is inserted into a gene-edited organism, but the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled last year that gene editing should be governed by the same regulations as GM.
The EU’s established legal framework on GM is designed to ensure, among other things, clear labelling and traceability of GMOs, genetic modified organisms, placed on the market.
‘Not got the technology’
But Professor Jim Bradeen, head of the University of Minnesota’s department of plant pathology, warned there is no technology currently available which could screen for gene-edited crops, making traceability and labelling impossible.
Speaking at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ (IFAJ) Congress in Minneapolis, Mr Bradeen said: “Regardless of what strategies the different regions take with regulating these crops, scientists are struggling to come up with methodologies to actually identify gene-edited crops.
“These are minor changes which are taking place in plant genomes, so regulation really is dependent on scientists or companies being really forthright about those processes.
“If we look at international trade, for example, if gene-edited crops got into that stream and ended up in Europe, I do not think Europe is going to know about it, because we have not got the technology to screen it.”
Mr Bradeen went on to say he believed gene editing was “entirely safe”, but the industry had to learn lessons from GM’s history to ensure its benefits were properly communicated to the public.
“GM is in some ways a sledgehammer and this is a taphammer,” he said.
“It is a much more refined strategy for improving crop plants.
“Scientists and communicators need to work together to make sure we are communicating openly and effectively about what these technologies are, what the potential is, and what the risks are too where they exist.
“We have an opportunity to get ahead of the dialogue at this point, and my hope is we can actually change this.”