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Give genes a chance to make agriculture more sustainable

Under the slogan Give Genes A Chance, young European scientists are campaigning for the admission of new genetic techniques in agriculture. Their action deserves support, argue Joost van Kasteren and Mirjam Vossen.

On 16 September, scientists took to the streets in Brussels to demonstrate support for new genetic technologies.

Recently, the European Commission presented a proposal to relax the rules on new genetic techniques. This explicitly concerns the cultivation of agricultural crops, such as vegetables and potatoes. While these proposals are awaiting approval, opposition from environmental organisations and green political parties is strong.

That’s why nearly 400 young scientists from 17 European countries climbed the barricades recently. With their Give Genes A Chance campaign, they are rallying in favour of new, promising technologies that can make agriculture more sustainable.

These technologies include the Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR-Cas, which makes it possible to change hereditary material of plants in a targeted way, much like editing a text, by changing or deleting some characters in the DNA of a plant.

Targeted breeding can better protect plants against diseases and pests, requiring far fewer pesticides and reducing food waste

In itself, changing hereditary properties is nothing new. We have been doing this for thousands of years. Until now, this was done through selection, using the seeds of the best plants over and over again, and crossing plants with the best properties. This traditional form of changing hereditary material of plants easily takes ten to forty years. In contrast, new genetic technologies are much more precise and deliver results much faster.

Due to biodiversity loss and climate change, genetic technologies like CRISPR-Cas are by no means a luxury. For instance, targeted breeding can better protect plants against diseases and pests, requiring far fewer pesticides and reducing food waste. The technologies can also help develop crops that are more resistant to prolonged drought or rainfall. In doing so, they make farmers worldwide more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Moreover, there are numerous health benefits. For instance, work is being done to develop wheat with less gluten, a solution for people with allergies to it. Vegetables are also being grown that improve iron absorption, which will particularly benefit girls and women. Research shows that this new genetic technology is at least as safe as the conventional approach.

In Europe, these new technologies are subject to 20-year-old legislation intended for genetically modified crops, making them virtually impossible to use

However great the benefits, in Europe we’re not yet allowed to take advantage of these technologies. This is because they’re subject to 20-year-old legislation intended for genetically modified crops. Genetic modification is a practice in which hereditary traits from one species are incorporated into another.

Sticking with the editing metaphor, entire new paragraphs are inserted into a text. By contrast, the new genetic technologies involve moving, deleting or replacing only a few letters or a word. Still, a technology like CRISPR-Cas falls under the ‘old’ law so it has become virtually impossible to use in Europe.

Fortunately, the European Commission recognises the importance of these new genetic technologies and intends to allow their authorisation. This will enable research institutes and companies to use them for making healthier food and more sustainable agriculture.

But there is the problem: the authorisation of CRISPR-Cas, among others, is not a done deal. Both the European Parliament and individual member states have yet to agree to it. And so, the scientists who understand and support the revolutionary technologies encounter opponents like well-established environmental organisations and political parties, who falsely claim that CRISPR-Cas is not safe.

The general public must be properly informed against misleading propaganda

For now, research shows that the general public is not negative towards these techniques. However, by constantly evoking associations with past debates about genetic modification, that sentiment could quickly turn. That is why young scientists are now taking to the barricades. The general public must be properly informed against misleading propaganda.

Give Genes a Chance is a more than welcome rallying cry. The people behind this initiative are dedicating their careers to a world with healthy food, climate-resilient agriculture and a clean environment. And they are concerned for good reason. So let European politicians and citizens listen to what they have to say.

Please pledge your support for the European Commission's proposal to relax the regulation on new genetic techniques. Submit your feedback before November 5 via this link.

Joost van Kasteren is an agronomist and Mirjam Vossen is a social geographer. Both are associated with RePlanet Nederland.


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