Aug 8, 2018
US specialty crops industry unfazed by EU’s GMO ruling

Specialty crop industry leaders see a future in new gene editing techniques, despite an unfavorable European Union high court ruling.

The Court Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled in July that both mutagenesis or genome-editing, and transgenesis – which involves inserting foreign DNA into an organism – produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But the court added that “organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques which have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record” could be exempt from its GMO laws.

A hearing of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Photo: Court of Justice of the European Union

The ruling will shape the future of agriculture in the EU, and will have an effect on its trading partners. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in a statement responding to the ruling: “The global regulatory treatment of genome-edited agricultural products has strategic innovation and trade implications for U.S. agriculture.” However, specialty crop industry groups aren’t backing away from new technologies for developing plant varieties for sale in the U.S. and other international markets, where the regulations are clearer, or less prohibitive than the EU’s GMO directive.

America American Seed Trade Association Senior Vice President of Domestic & International Policy Bernice Slutsky said in a statement that “the court’s interpretation contradicts the direction many other governments outside of Europe are going with respect to plant breeding innovation policy, and sets a dangerous precedent that could impede global trade and stifle innovation for the future.”

“The ECJ’s decision is based solely on the plant breeding method, without taking into account whether the end-product could have been achieved through more traditional means,” she continued. “Even very small improvements made to a plant would be subject to burdensome regulation under the court’s definition. This would be a huge blow to the continuing evolution of plant breeding innovation and the tremendous promise it holds for a more sustainable and secure global food production system.”

The leadership of EuropaBio, which promotes an innovative and dynamic European biotechnology industry, said in a statement that the ruling was unclear.

“Following more than ten years of discussion, it was hoped that this ruling would provide the legal certainty and predictability needed by EU public and private researchers to deliver solutions to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” said EuropaBio’s Secretary General John Brennan, who noted that Europe could miss out on significant benefits of certain applications of genome editing. “Unfortunately, this court ruling, which is inconsistent with the Advocate General’s Opinion published in January, does not provide the necessary regulatory clarity needed by EU researchers, academics and innovators.”

It’s not entirely clear which breeding or bioengineering techniques would be governed by the GMO directive.

“Our team is still doing some analysis of the ruling, and declining to comment for right now,” said Karen Batra, Managing Director, Agriculture & Environment Communications for the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Some advanced breeding techniques may not even fit the definition of mutagenesis, and thus escape the EU’s regulation of GMO’s.

RNA interference (RNAi) is a technique or mechanism used to silence an organism’s undesirable traits. That technique was used both in development of Innate potatoes and Arctic Apples approved in the U.S.

Browning on a conventional apple vs. an Arctic Apple. Photo: Okanagan

British Columbia’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits first began selling its Arctic Apples in the United States in the fall of 2017.  Company president Neal Carter said the EU’s ruling wouldn’t apply to Arctic Apples.

“Non-browning Arctic apple varieties are developed by silencing the enzyme that causes browning when apples are bitten, sliced, or bruised,” Carter wrote in a statement to Fruit Growers News. “Okanagan Specialty Fruits employed proven biotechnology techniques to silence the expression of the enzyme; the methods used differ from new gene editing technologies, which is what this latest ruling by the European Court of Justice was in reference to.

“That said, Okanagan Specialty Fruits recognizes that all forms of biotechnology bring innovative solutions to farmers and consumers,” Carter continued. “If we can all embrace the technology that will aid us to efficiently and sustainably produce the food we need to feed this planet we can make a powerful impact on the sustainability of both the environment and people across the world.”

RNAi was also used in the development of Innate-brand potatoes from Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot. Approved for sale in the U.S., Innate potatoes also feature genes from wild and cultivated potatoes that, according to Simplot, reduce bruising and black spots, decrease natural asparagine and protect from late blight pathogens.

Simplot and the Innate brand didn’t respond to requests from Fruit Growers News for comment on the EU ruling.

However, the EU ruling does seem to apply to CRISPR/cas9 technology, which allows for precise gene editing, and which is already playing a role in the development of new crop varieties.

Using gene editing technology such as CRISPR-Cas9, bruising and browning of potatoes can be reduced. © 2018 J.R. Simplot Company (PRNewsfoto/J.R. Simplot Company)

Simplot in early August announced a joint intellectual property licensing agreement with Corteva Agriscience, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. According to Simplot, its new license of CRISPR/cas9 is the first given to an agricultural company. The comprehensive intellectual property rights allow Simplot to apply scientific tools as widely as it looks for another avenue to bring desirable traits forward in fruits and vegetables, developing them for eventual sale in U.S. markets.

Meanwhile, some organic agricultural groups are encouraged by the ruling. The EU’s legal action was initiated by Confédération paysanne, a French agricultural union that favors small-scale farming. With eight other associations, it brought an action before the Conseil d’État (Council of State, France) in order to contest French legislation that provided exemptions from the GMO Directive.

Regional leaders of the International organics group IFOAM applauded the ruling.

“The confirmation by the European Court of Justice that new GMOs will be subject to traceability and labelling is good news for organic breeders, farmers and processors but also for all European producers and consumers as it brings clarity and will ensure the freedom to avoid such GM products and the protection of the environment from the potential risks of these new technologies,” said Jan Plagge, the president of IFOAM EU.

–    Stephen Kloosterman, FGN Associate Editor

Top photo: Okanagan Specialty Fruits President Neal Carter picks an Arctic apple. Photo: Okanagan

New gene-editing to be regulated like GMOs, European court rules

Corteva, Broad Institute license Simplot to use CRISPR-Cas9

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