Want to Make EU Agriculture More Sustainable?

Like it or not, allowing gene editing could be key

Want to Make EU Agriculture More Sustainable?

The European Union is currently in the process of reconsidering how to regulate gene-edited crops in agriculture. This month, the European Commission released its recommendations for new regulations, which the European Parliament and Council of the European Union will now consider. If they reject gene editing outright, it will deal the planet a serious blow.

The European Commission’s proposal for regulation of crops altered using NGTs (like CRISPR gene editing) opens up the possibility of their cultivation in the EU. It proposes saving some types of crops altered using NGTs from falling under the de-facto GMO ban that has hindered their cultivation in the EU for the past 20 years, and instead applies a short process to verify the type and category of genetic change before entry in a database. Compared to countries like the United States and Argentina, the proposed EU regulations do not fully exempt any products of NGTs from biotechnology-specific regulations or allow developers of NGT crops to self-determine whether their product is exempt. In theory, the proposed EU regulations could support transparency while easing the path to market for a larger category of NGTs than other regulatory systems do; however, the process for verifying the category of NGT as currently outlined has the potential for political interference, and should be shored up against unjustified delays.

Gene editing can be used to make small, precise changes to a plant’s genes that can increase its drought tolerance, decrease susceptibility to disease, and more. Thanks to gene editing, in other words, crops of the future may need less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, less land, and less water. In turn, we may be able to feed the planet at a smaller environmental cost.

Yet despite these and other potential benefits to humans and the environment, the EU stands as the world’s largest bloc that has failed to embrace gene editing. By passing new regulations that allow gene editing in crop plants, the EU could make its agriculture more environmentally friendly.

The best known type of gene editing is CRISPR, which effectively edits a plant’s own genes. This is different from genetic modification, which inserts larger pieces of DNA from other species to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The most widespread GMOs in global agriculture are herbicide-tolerant crops (one type is known as Roundup Ready) like maize, cotton, soybean, and canola , and insect-resistant crops like maize and cotton (Bt crops contain a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produces a protein toxic to some insects when eaten, and protects the crop from damage by the cotton bollworm pest). Such crops have been around for decades and have improved weed control, and reduced pesticide use and herbicide toxicity.

By comparison, CRISPR is quite new and was first used for gene editing in 2013. There are fewer applications on the market so far. In 2021, the world’s first CRISPR gene-edited crop—a tomato with increased content of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which may potentially lower blood pressure—entered the market in Japan. Even more recently, the United States got its first CRISPR gene-edited crop on market, a mustard green developed by Pairwise that doesn’t taste bitter.Looking forward, other CRISPR gene-edited crops expected to enter the market by 2030 include short-stature corn, which is less prone to breaking under high winds, and pod shatter-resistant canola, which reduces crop loss during harvest.

Although there are not yet any gene-edited crop plants on the market that improve drought tolerance or improve weed or pest control, studies of existing genetically modified crops (GMOs) illustrate some of the potential benefits. The Breakthrough Institute previously published an analysis of the drought-tolerant, genetically-modified HB4 wheat in Argentina, estimating that if the country cultivated it on a third of its current wheat-growing area, then greenhouse gas emissions associated with wheat production in the country could decrease by 34–51%. Not only could growing drought-tolerant HB4 wheat lower agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, but it would also make Argentinian agriculture more resilient to climate change, and decrease wheat shortages due to poor growing conditions in drought years. Wheat, along with barley, is the most widely-cultivated crop in the EU, and drought has threatened 2023 production in many countries, especially Spain, meaning wheat with improved drought tolerance could be beneficial.

To put a finer point on it, in a recent analysis, the Breakthrough Institute estimated that if the bloc grew existing genetically modified crops in proportions similar to countries like Brazil, Canada, and the United States, emissions associated with EU agriculture could decrease by an amount equal to 7.5% of total EU agricultural emissions from 2017. Additionally, the increase in crop yields in the bloc could decrease global deforestation by easing pressure on lower-income, tropical countries to cut down forests to expand farmland. Right now, the EU imports millions of tons of soybean meal from Brazil, where expansion of soybean area for export is associated with deforestation in the Amazon. Expanded EU soybean production could even increase EU soy exports to countries with less environmentally-friendly production.

The promise of gene editing technology is clear, but the European Union has stood opposed to it in favor of a focus on organic agriculture (which does not permit GMOs or NGTs) and broadly reducing inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides — while failing to take advantage of NGTs to support sustainable agriculture. Yet by rejecting genetically modified crops as a whole, the EU has missed out on decades of environmental benefits. The bloc should seize the opportunity presented by the commission’s new recommendations to participate in the benefits of gene edited crops. Countries worldwide need to embrace a wide variety of tools in order to decrease agriculture’s environmental impacts while also adapting to climate change and increasing food production, and the EU could play an important role in this process.