In 2021, the European Union announced that it would be reviewing its 2001-era legislation governing genetically modified (GM) organisms, so as to properly account for the recent development of “gene-edited” crops, which are produced using what’s known as New Genomic Techniques. To laypeople, the distinction between the various technology types may seem obscure. But from a scientific point of view, the difference is significant.
Genetically modified organisms—also known as transgenic organisms, or GMOs—have been around since the 1990s. Many well-known GMOs have been developed by combining DNA from different types of organisms, a process that has aroused fears of “frankenfoods” (a pejorative term coined three decades ago by Boston College professor Paul Lewis, who wrote, “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it's time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle”).
By contrast, New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) allow scientists to manipulate specific regions of a genome directly—so as to reduce the need for pesticides, resist disease, boost yields, or enhance resilience in the face of climate change—without importing genetic material from outside sources. CRISPR-Cas9 (typically rendered simply as CRISPR), the leading technology in this area, is analogized to a pair of genetic scissors that scientists can use to surgically remove, add, or reorder genetic material on a molecular level.
This is not just some superficial branding change that corporations have slapped onto legacy GMO technology. NGTs represent an enormous technological leap, as evidenced by the fact that the two scientists who developed CRISPR in the 2010s received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.
Two years following the EU’s 2021 announcement, the European Commission (the EU’s executive branch) is now proposing to loosen its restrictive GM rules in cases where gene-edited crops have been subject to no more than 20 specific gene modifications. A leaked draft of the proposed legislation suggests that under the new rules, EU countries would no longer be able to ban the cultivation of NGT crops. The decision is based on an extensive study that found, as an EU Vice-President put it, “there is sufficient evidence and scientific basis to initiate a targeted policy action on plants derived from certain new genomic techniques”—i.e., NGTs.
Such plants would be treated, for regulatory purposes, in the same way as plants bred by traditional methods. This means they would not be subject to the extensive risk-assessment protocols applied to GMOs, nor to labeling requirements that serve to identify foods as genetically modified.
If implemented, this welcome proposal would open the door to many new products. It would also help bring Europe’s regulatory policy into the 21st century. As GM crops have become widely adopted in many parts of the world, a scientific consensus has emerged to the effect that these plants are as safe to eat as any other food. Yet public distrust and intense lobbying by activist groups has largely stymied the adoption of GM foods in Europe, where only a handful of genetically modified products have been authorized (mainly for animal feed). Moreover, Europe’s overly cautious approach has, in turn, encouraged the adoption of similarly restrictive policies in developing countries.