In a new position statement, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) says the EU’s precautionary approach to GM technologies could have huge costs, inhibiting potentially important crop developments in the face of rising agricultural demand – as well as costs associated with testing for the presence of GM material in imports.
“While it is important to guard against the notion of a simple “technological fix” to the many challenges facing agriculture, it is equally important to reap the benefits of available and emerging technologies where they can contribute effectively,” the paper said.
BBSRC experts advocate assessing the safety of new crop varieties according to their characteristics, rather than the method by which they were produced.
They argue that this would result in “more effective and robust regulation” than the current system, because it may be impossible to detect whether a specific breeding technique has been used. Currently, several GM crops are not approved for cultivation but can be imported into Europe, and unintentional presence of GM material is tolerated at a level of up to 0.9% in other crops.
In particular, the BBSRC highlights emerging crop breeding technologies such as genome editing, which allows precise swapping or deletion of specific plant traits.
“The boundaries between established genetic modification (GM) and non-GM techniques will become increasingly blurred as techniques develop,” they wrote. “…A trait-based regulatory system would allow more meaningful debate about agricultural priorities. Many of the concerns raised about GM crops are not related to the technique used but rather to the traits that have been introduced.”
Public concerns about GM crops tend to fall into two main categories, claims the paper – general concerns over how traits are selected for market release and how they are marketed, and specific concerns about the potential impacts of certain traits.
“A trait-based regulatory system would focus the discussion explicitly on both these factors,” the paper said.
BBSRC chief executive, Professor Jackie Hunter, said: "There is no doubt that improved crop varieties will be produced using these new methods around the world and commercialised in countries outside of the EU. If we want the UK and the EU to continue to be world-leading in this area, we must ensure there is appropriate regulation in this changing landscape."
Only two GM crops have been approved for cultivation in Europe – Monsanto’s MON810 corn, and BASF’s Amflora potato.
The position paper is available online here.