Statement from the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research on the recent decision of the European Court of Justice regarding gene-edited organisms

August 06, 2018

We, the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, note with dismay the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice of the European Union that imposes strict regulations on gene-edited plants and crops.

The importance of gene editing for modern plant research and agriculture is hard to overstate. To cite but one example from our own research: in the 1990s we isolated the barley Mlo gene which when mutated provides durable and broad resistance against the pathogenic powdery mildew fungus. Mutation of this gene, which is already found in nature, has been successfully employed in European barley agriculture for more than 40 years. Further, genetic engineering has been harnessed to introduce this resistance into almost all economically significant plant species, including wheat and tomato. While in barley compromising the function of this gene is relatively straightforward using traditional approaches, engineering resistance in a species such as wheat, which harbors six copies of every gene requires much more targeted and specific methods.

In explaining its decision, the Court has reasoned “that the risks linked to the use of these new mutagenesis techniques might prove to be similar to those that result from the production and release of a GMO through transgenesis.” Such a rationale risks muddying the water with respect to the important and fundamental differences between gene editing per se and transgenic technology. Highly specific methods such as CRISPR-Cas9, for example, can be used to selectively deactivate a single gene within a genome containing tens of thousands of genes. Sequencing the entire genome of the resulting mutant (which is becoming easier and cheaper by the year) and comparison with the original can then reveal if any other undesired changes have taken place. No foreign genetic material is introduced. Further, compared to traditional techniques such as radiation-induced mutagenesis the method is surgical in its precision. As has been argued elsewhere, the safety of a mutant plant should not be determined by the technique used to generate it but by the final genetic make-up of the plant itself. Somewhat ironically, thousands of varieties of mutant crops generated using the much more scattergun approach of shotgun mutagenesis have been approved for commercialization and are consumed by millions on a daily basis.

The repercussions of the ECJ’s ruling will of course be felt in basic plant and crop research in the EU and will hamper field experiments in the area of molecular ecology. Furthermore, such restrictions put us at a disadvantage compared to non-European colleagues. However, the most serious consequences are likely to be those for agriculture and world food security. By 2050, world food demand may be twice that in 2005 and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that, if we continue on our current course, then this increased demand may not be met. The genetic engineering of plants to make them more productive and resistant offers huge potential in a world where crop yields have plateaued, where the use of herbicides and pesticides are more controversial than ever, and where the effects of climate change on crop yields are being felt ever more keenly – drought is likely to reduce harvests by as much as 70% in Germany this year. Finally, the ruling of the European Court of Justice will certainly result in a drain of excellently trained young European scientists moving to agricultural companies outside of the EU.

Paul Schulze-Lefert, George Coupland, and Miltos Tsiantis

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