Ruling of European Court of Justice puts sustainable agriculture in Europe at risk

31 July 2018
Wherever you look around the world, the gradual improvement of people's health and living standards has always been accompanied by a systematic optimization of the production of safe, nutritious and affordable food. This was achieved by continuously planting new crop varieties and changing cultivation methods.

This development of agriculture is still in full swing, because the challenges for the future are no less: the world population will continue to increase until at least 2100; the current agriculture puts immense pressure on fertile soil and on natural raw materials such as some minerals and water, and as we have been able to observe in recent months, the climate is changing at an accelerated pace.

While sustainable agriculture is one of the most important development goals of the United Nations, achieving this goal seems a lot further away than ever. After all, the European Court of Justice ruled that plants such as agricultural crops obtained by modern techniques, which are now used worldwide, must now be regarded as GMOs and must therefore comply with the extremely strict conditions of the European GMO Directive. However, these modern techniques allow you to make targeted and precise improvements in the DNA of a plant. This is a huge improvement compared to old mutagenesis techniques that have been used for more than 60 years and whose products we eat almost daily. The old techniques are much less precise, almost like trying to use a cannon to kill a mosquito.

"For us scientists, the Court's ruling is really absurd, and it will lead to a standstill of the much-needed agricultural innovation – at least in Europe." says Dirk Inzé, Science Director of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology. "After all, the agricultural industry will no longer develop new varieties for Europe. Without these new technologies, results from basic research in disease and drought resistance in crops will no longer find their way to the field, or in any case much slower. We need solutions to make our crops more resistant to drought, to use less fertilizers and fewer pesticides NOW, not in 50 years. Moreover, this lack of research will undoubtedly lead to higher food prices and a Europe that becomes too dependent on food and feed imports from non-European areas."

This ruling means that it will be very difficult for European government institutions and companies to develop products with innovative plant breeding techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas. Many (small) European seed breeding companies embraced the new technologies as a better alternative to traditional mutagenesis techniques (treatment with chemicals, irradiation with radioactivity, etc.). The new techniques are much more precise, more focused and controlled (only the desired mutations are made). Companies therefore looked forward to more clarity regarding the regulations for the new breeding technique. The research institutions and companies in the sector are therefore extremely disappointed. With rules that are too strict and completely incomprehensible to scientists, more time and money will be lost to implement the necessary infrastructure and administration for research projects. For many research institutions and smaller companies, this will be an impossible expense. Moreover, over the last 20 years, new cultivars bearing the 'GMO label' have been systematically blocked in the EU commission, even after positive evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. Such a negative political climate will end the development of improved crops, new initiatives (such as start-ups in the sector) are threatened and in the end, investors and companies will move away from Europe. It will no longer make sense for them (because of too great a risk) to develop activities in this hostile environment. As an example, Bayer recently moved its crop improvement department to the United States.

According to Johan Cardoen, General Manager of VIB, equating CRISPR with GMO may well be the death blow for plant research and agriculture in Europe. "Europe and especially Flanders has a strong position in innovative research in agriculture. This has led to a lot of young start-ups and collaborations with small and larger companies at home and abroad. The decision of the Court will result in the loss of a lot of expertise if European plant researchers seek refuge elsewhere. Also, job losses are not inconceivable when more biotech companies leave Europe or young starters set up business elsewhere."

Only one measure can reverse this trend and that is developing new regulations that offer companies and research institutions more legal certainty and evaluate new crop varieties on a scientific basis.

The position of Europe regarding new breeding techniques also has consequences outside of Europe. As soon as the Court expressed its decision, media were buzzing with reactions of highly concerned scientists working on improved crops for Africa, such as cassava that is more resistant to disease and pests. Traditionally, Africa is looking to Europe for agriculture and possibly, this European decision will not remain without consequences on other continents. According to UN calculations, in this century the population of Africa will increase from 1 billion to 4 billion, mainly due to a sharp decline in child mortality and better health care. Agricultural production on that continent should therefore be given ample opportunity to increase as sustainably as possible, including the application of modern technologies.

A review of the ruling of the European Court of Justice is therefore urgent.