EU’s trade future hinges on genome editing

KINGSTON, Ont. — The crop biotech industry will soon learn if Europe is headed into a regulatory abyss.

European politicians remain hostile to genetically modified crops, and over the last few months they have considered banning glyphosate, the most popular herbicide in the world.

It appears the European Union is becoming more opposed to any form of agricultural technology, says Maurice Moloney of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatoon, but if it creates strict regulations for genome editing, a technique promoted as the future of crop trait development, the continent is truly entering a dark age for biotech.

“(Things) can potentially get better or potentially get worse (in Europe),” Moloney said at the Plant Biotech 2016 conference in Kingston, Ont. in June.

“Probably, the test case is going to be genome editing.”

The EU has to make a decision on CRISPR/Cas9, a technique used in genome editing to modify plant genes. Plant scientists say CRISPR is comparable to mutagenesis, in which a plant’s DNA is randomly altered with chemicals.

“Genome editing, by it’s very nature, is a technique (that is) very elegant mutagenesis,” Moloney said.

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“Mutagenesis is not regulated in the European Union.”

So far, regulators in the United States are accepting the argument that genome editing is like mutagenesis, said Jeff Habben, a senior research manager for trait discovery with DuPont Pioneer.

DuPont scientists recently used genome editing to develop a cultivar of waxy corn, a type of corn used to make glue and thickeners for food.

“We submitted it to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) … and they ruled, just last month, that they don’t consider this a regulated trait,” Habben said.

“So that’s a good sign.”

Moloney said European opposition to crop biotech is problematic for Canadian farmers and may compromise the Canada-EU trade deal. The agreement is supposed to increase exports of Canadian agricultural products, but European regulations could thwart that opportunity.

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“It is very worrying that (our politicians), both the U.S. and Canada, they haven’t specified this issue,” Moloney said.

He said Canada has the best system in the world for regulating crop traits because Health Canada regulates the end product rather than the process.

“There’s one way through all of this and that’s to copy what Canada does,” he said.

“That would be the way forward in a trade agreement.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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