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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Emma Kovak

Who’s Afraid of Gene-Edited Crops?

A researcher checks alfalfa plants inside a laboratory in Rosario, Argentina, on July 26. (Hector Rio/AFP via Getty Images)

In May, the United Kingdom introduced a bill that would allow the commercial cultivation and sale of gene-edited crops, which are functionally banned under European Union regulations that still apply to the country. If it passes, the bill will increase the number of tools British farmers have to grow more resilient—and nutritious—food.

Since Brexit in January 2020, the British government has sought to move away from restrictive EU rules on gene-edited crops, or crops that are created by making precise changes to a plant’s DNA. Easing regulations, as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s team argued earlier this year, would benefit the environment and align Britain with important trading partners. In March, Parliament approved new rules to make it easier for researchers to grow gene-edited crops outdoors in trials. But the new bill, called the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, would be the most significant step the government has taken yet.

If the bill passes, which could happen before the end of the year, it will help ensure food security while also limiting the environmental impacts of agriculture. Increasing food security involves not only growing more food and improving crop nutrition but also quickly breeding crops to thrive under changing weather patterns. If we don’t help crops adapt to climate change, yields will decrease, and farms will have to expand to keep producing the same amount of food—leading to deforestation, plant biodiversity loss, and wildlife habitat destruction.

Passage of the new bill would also move the U.K. more in line with the many countries, such as Argentina, Israel, and the United States, that have greatly eased regulations on gene-edited crops. Britain should not only pass the Precision Breeding Bill but also revise its regulations for genetically engineered crops—otherwise known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—to pioneer a new approach to these crops that could be adopted around the world.

There are three main ways to change crop plants. The first is conventional or traditional breeding, which involves planned crosses between plants with different characteristics and also creating mutations in DNA using chemicals and radiation to generate new characteristics. The other two methods—genetic engineering and gene editing—are generally distinguished from conventional breeding with the umbrella term “plant biotechnology.”

Since the 1980s, scientists have been able to use genetic engineering (also known as genetic modification) to add genes into one organism from a different organism of the same or a different species. This has been used to protect crops from damage by making them resistant to pests and herbicides. In the 1990s, gene editing—for which CRISPR is the most advanced and well-known tool—was developed. It allows scientists to make small, precise changes to a plant’s already existing DNA by changing or deleting letters of the DNA code.

Conventional breeding is the slowest and least precise of the three methods to change crop plants, while gene editing is the fastest and most precise. Generally, genetic engineering is the most heavily regulated worldwide, while conventional breeding is the least. In many countries, it has been difficult to change the minds of the public and policymakers on plant biotechnologies. Some opponents of these technologies view them as unnatural, dangerous, and untested; others see them as linked to agrochemical use and as tools for corporate control in agriculture.

Yet while stringent regulations of genetically engineered crops made more sense in the 1980s, when they were less well-understood, experts in plant biotechnology today generally agree that these biotechnologies don’t pose any unique risks compared to conventional breeding. More than 4,300 risk assessments in 70 countries have shown this to be the case. In addition, all breeding methods, including conventional ones, can make changes in plant DNA that can affect characteristics such as nutrition and allergenicity—and scientists now have the tools to look closely at every one of those changes and assess their impact on the final product. In fact, crop developers test for these risks in the breeding process to select desirable characteristics and remove undesirable ones.

Experts in plant biotechnology today generally agree that these biotechnologies don’t pose any unique risks.

Yet overly restrictive and outdated regulations in many countries have limited development and adoption of both genetically engineered and gene-edited crops. In the United States, for example, regulations made it expensive and time-consuming to bring genetically engineered crops to market until 2020—and it is still unclear whether new regulations will ease the process. Past regulations included requiring extensive data from crop developers to make regulatory decisions about any genetically engineered plant. For GMO plants introduced between 2008 and 2012, the entire regulatory process took an average of seven years and cost $35 million.

Meanwhile, the EU, which had a de facto moratorium on genetically engineered crops from 1999 to 2004, has only marginally cultivated those crops even as it imports them in large quantities, mainly for animal feed. (Only 29 countries grew biotech crops worldwide in 2019, but more than 40 additional countries imported them.) In 2019, the EU imported 20 percent of its domestic crop consumption, including more than 30 million metric tons of soybeans and soybean products, at least 90 percent of which came from genetically engineered crops, and at least 10 million metric tons of corn and corn products, at least 20 percent of which came from genetically engineered crops.

In 2018, the EU’s top court ruled that new gene-edited crops would be subject to the same regulations as genetically engineered crops. Criticism of the ruling prompted the EU to reevaluate these regulations the following year. The reevaluation, which is ongoing, could eventually allow commercial cultivation of gene-edited crops. However, it will be years before these regulations might change.

Instead of relying on modern technology, the EU is currently following its “Farm to Fork Strategy,” which aims to increase organic farming in member states. This focus on organic farming, combined with stringent crop biotechnology regulations, slows the pace of breeding improved crops, reduces growth and profits in the agricultural biotechnology sector, and incentivizes crop scientists from EU countries to seek opportunities abroad.

Furthermore, by prioritizing organic production over yields—which involves forgoing tools such as synthetic fertilizer, synthetic pesticides, and biotechnology—the EU is growing less food than it could, despite the global need to ramp up crop production to feed a growing population. Organic farming has lower average crop yields than non-organic farming, and a report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that if the EU fully implements its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, lower yields and decreased farming area could reduce total EU cereal supply by 15 percent, vegetable supply by 12 percent, and meat and raw milk supplies by 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively, by 2030.

The EU may also import more food as it further deprioritizes yields, thereby further promoting expanded production and associated deforestation and biodiversity loss in lower-income countries. A 2013 report found that more than one-third of deforestation associated with the global crop trade between 1990 and 2008 could be at least partly traced back to EU agricultural imports. If the EU does not change course, deforestation outside the bloc may only increase.

Some countries, however, have taken a different approach. In 2015, Argentina became the first country to exempt most types of gene-edited crops from existing pre-market regulations for genetically engineered crops, modeling regulatory reform that accelerates product approval and development. A four-year study showed that after this regulation went into effect, compared with genetically engineered crops, gene-edited crops moved faster through regulatory systems, were led by smaller developers, and covered more diverse traits and organisms. These changes have contributed to strengthening Argentina’s agricultural innovation system and expanding opportunities for economic development.

Countries including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Israel, Paraguay, and the United States have followed Argentina’s lead over the past seven years and exempted most types of gene-edited crops from existing regulations for genetically engineered crops.

These exemptions do have the potential to cause trade difficulties, particularly with other countries that have import restrictions on gene-edited crops or a complete lack of existing regulations for gene-edited crops. Britain, for instance, shares close trade relationships with EU countries. A massive 61 percent of U.K. agricultural exports by value went to EU countries in 2020, while 9 percent of the EU’s agricultural imports came from Britain in 2021. If the Precision Breeding Bill passes, issues could arise because, among other things, EU countries require labeling of gene-edited products for import and it is unlikely that British gene-edited products would be labeled.

But there’s little reason for concern in either the short or the long term for Britain. The percentage of gene-edited U.K. exports would increase slowly over the course of years, as new regulations are adopted and companies take action. (CRISPR gene editing only took off in 2015, so even worldwide there is still only one CRISPR-edited tomato on the market, in addition to a soybean that was gene-edited using an older technology called TALEN and is used to produce an oil free of trans fats.) And if the EU’s ongoing revision of gene-editing regulations yields a system more in line with what the U.K. is considering, differences in regulation will likely become minimal over time.

Now that it is free from the EU’s overly cautious approach, the U.K. should not just pass the Precision Breeding Bill but go further in revising biotechnology regulations. For one, it could reconsider its restrictive approach to genetically engineered crops. Not all countries that are progressive on gene-edited crop regulation have also reassessed their regulation of genetically engineered crops. Yet genetic engineering is still an important tool, as it is more effective for some purposes than gene editing—for example, in making crops that produce their own pesticide, which is becoming more important as climate change increases the regions where pests can thrive.

Britain could even pioneer a truly product-based approach to GMO crops, which no other country has yet done. A product-based approach focuses on regulating the actual source of risk—the characteristics of the final product—rather than on the method used to create the product, as current systems do by applying pre-market regulations based on whether a crop is gene-edited, genetically engineered, or conventionally bred. Many expert reports have been recommending this approach for years—such as those from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—and most biotechnology experts prefer product-based regulation over process-based regulation.

A truly product-based regulatory system would regulate gene-edited and genetically engineered plants based solely on the characteristics of the final product and how much those affect certain environmental and health risks. For example, a crop that produces its own pesticides might be evaluated in terms of how greatly it could contribute to the evolution of pesticide-resistant insects. All plants that do not have traits that pose a plausible risk would be exempt from pre-market regulation but still undergo post-market safety regulations that apply to all foods.

If the U.K. sets this precedent and successfully implements new regulations, other countries will follow. The potential benefits are vast: Faster product approval means more research and development of the biotechnology industry and thus more efficient and more plentiful food production around the world.

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