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Stifling innovation

Europe has an ambivalent attitude towards innovation. On one hand, we celebrate the growth of successful businesses and new home-grown products but, on the other, the natural desire to guarantee safety creates barriers that few companies – particularly small, innovative ones – can overcome.

The point of balance between innovation and safety varies from sector to sector. In general, we worry less about computers, smart phones and similar hardware. Most of haven’t a clue what goes on behind the screen, but we don’t know what we’d do without them and – with the possible exception of concerns about radiation from phones – don’t think they’ll do us any harm.

This is not the case for food. Understandably, because eating is both vital for life and carries so much cultural baggage, we are concerned about the wholesomeness of what we put in our mouths. This, of course, hasn’t prevented the current high levels of obesity, but people still generally have quite strong ideas about what is and isn’t good for them.

There is clear evidence that our dietary habits (along with other lifestyle factors) have an impact on our healthiness and life expectancy. As for short-term effects, by far the biggest food-related issue is food poisoning, caused by inadequate cooking or poor storage. But one of the biggest campaigning issues of the recent past has been against genetically modified crops, an issue on which the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there are no safety concerns.

The complex and politicised approvals process for new GMOs has had a number of negative consequences, not least the effective export of research and development in agricultural biotechnology by companies active in the area and the erection of regulatory barriers which only major multinationals have the resources to scale. But if that isn’t bad enough, the situation could soon become even worse.

The current regulations define a GMO as having been made via a very specific technique, what is known as recombinant-DNA technology, and the end result is known as a transgene because the genome includes genetic material not present in the original variety. This may be one or more genes plus additional promotor and inhibitor sequences to control expression.

The process itself involves producing a sufficient quantity of a given genetic construct using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and then introducing this into cells of the target plant variety using agrobacterium tumefaciens or the gene gun (biolistics). One of the key arguments of critics is that this gives transgenic plants that could not have been derived from crossing two related parent varieties. In the early days of commercialisation, one rather emotive graphic showed a tomato with a fish tail, because a variety was being developed using a gene discovered in a cold water-tolerant fish species.

However, the rDNA technique can also be used to introduce genes from related species to achieve a particular end that would be much more difficult to arrive at via conventional breeding. In this case, the end product has been dubbed cisgenic, since it contains no ‘foreign’ DNA. The big question, which has been wrestled with for many years by the EU, is whether such a cisgene should be regulated in the same was as a transgene.

EFSA’s opinion is that cisgenics introduces no significant new hazards compared with ‘conventional’ breeding (a term that encompasses a wide range of techniques, including uncontrolled mutagenesis). This opinion from independent scientists has, however, not yet been enough to nudge the Commission towards an evidence-based decision.

This is in fact only one example of a novel plant breeding technology not available when the current regulations were formulated. Of particular interest right now is one called CRISPR cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). This can be used to make precise changes to particular genetic sequences by excising and replacing them by the modified DNA. This is a naturally occurring repair mechanism in microorganisms, and can give exquisitely precise control over the genome.

More particularly, this technique overcomes the major shortcomings of rDNA technology by being targeted to very specific parts of the genome and leaving no ‘foreign’ DNA in place. It has enormous potential in healthcare, agriculture and industrial processing. But, in the agricultural sector, the EU has not yet decided how it (or other new plant breeding techniques) should be regulated.

Predictably, anti-GM groups are calling for all such new techniques to be classed as GMOs and therefore be considered under the same cumbersome and largely unworkable regulation. For example, from Greenpeace: Why EU GMO law must be fully applied to the so-called ‘New Plant Breeding Techniques’.

On the other side of the argument, groups such as COCERAL, representing companies in the agricultural trade sector, are also making their case: Trade body: Don’t lump ‘new plant breeding techniques’ in with GMOs. Their point is that these new techniques offer significant benefits and it is the end result that is more important than the means of achieving it. Critics, on the other hand, suggest dire consequences from engineered plants spreading their traits to other species.

At heart, this is a philosophical argument. On one hand, we have companies eager to realise the potential of powerful new and evolving technologies, and a farming community largely keen to see what it can deliver for them. On the other, there are a number of vocal lobby groups concerned ostensibly about the science, but in reality also not fans of the multinational agricultural supply companies or modern intensive farming. The public are somewhere in the middle, not really interested in the science but easily swayed by scare stories. Policymakers, in turn, pander to these lobby groups and are loathe to accept the scientific advice.

The impact of this highly precautionary approach is to stifle innovation and reinforce the competitive advantage of the USA, China and others. If CRISPR and other techniques are lumped in under the GMO regulations, this is a further step in the EU’s downward path away from an innovation-led economy. The vision of Europe becoming a Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy will be increasingly at odds with an anti-technology reality. But there is still a chance for rational policymaking to win the day.