A decision from the European Court of Justice has decided that genetically distinct plants achieved through new plant breeding techniques like mutagensis qualify as genetically modified organisms. What is the idea behind Mutagenesis?
The decision has implications for different strains and species of plants developed using the technique, which will now be governed in the European Union by the rules the international bloc has set out for genetically modified organisms, called the GMO Directive. According to the website Feed Navigator, high court’s opinion is somewhat unusual in that it runs contrary to the recommendation of the court’s Advocate General, who recommended that such organisms be exempted from the requirements of the directive.
The case that prompted the decision emerged from France in 2016. Breeders were achieving new strains of plants with desirable qualities without introducing novel DNA into their genomes. Instead, they were playing with the DNA that the plants already had, and introducing some new material from species that were closely related and could be hybridized with the plants. These techniques are less intrusive and novel than what’s traditionally considered genetic modification.
They also cast light on a curious but important idea: all farmers who breed plants or animals are engaging in genetic modification, in a sense. Selecting for favorable genes by picking out the strongest, biggest, fastest growing or most disease resistant organisms and breeding them is an age-old practice; in terms of the result, selecting for such advantageous genetic qualities is not so different from using a bit of technology to rearrange those genes on their own. And that, in and of itself, is not so different from using similar tech to alter or rewrite those genes, or to replace or supplement them with genetic material borrowed from another living thing. It’s all on a scale, most of it is achieved using the same techniques, and it can be quite difficult to suss out what qualifies as genetic modification and what doesn’t.
Mutagenesis has advanced to the point where it can now be done in vitro – scientists can go in and access the seeds of plants while they’re germinating to rearrange genetic material and thus achieve novel and advantageous mutations. The fight in France kicked off when these new mutagenesis techniques were used to make seeds resistant to certain herbicides. An association of French farmers sued, claiming that the modified seeds posed a threat to health and the environment – basically, that they would encourage farmers to use more herbicides than they would were the seeds not resistant, thus contaminating the soil and posing a threat to other living things that might come into contact with the herbicides.
If the seeds derived through mutagensis and other new plant breeding techniques were classified as GMOs, the farmers figured, then they’d be subject to much stricter regulations under European Union rules, thus effectively negating the danger from overuse of herbicides that they might pose. So they sued. The case worked its way through France’s courts before arriving at the European Court of Justice.
The ECJ ultimately decided that the seeds were indeed GMOs. “Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Directive, in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally. It follows that those organisms come, in principle, within the scope of the GMO Directive and are subject to the obligations laid down by that directive,” they wrote.
Not all seeds derived by mutagensis are subject to the ruling, however. Conventional techiques with a long safety record are exempted from the rules, according to the ECJ, and member states can decide for themselves whether they want to hold those plants to the regulatory framework set out in the GMO directives or not.
The risks, according to the court, lie instead in newer mutagenesis techniques that are still relatively unproven. “the direct modification of the genetic material of an organism through mutagenesis makes it possible to obtain the same effects as the introduction of a foreign gene into the organism (transgenesis),” they wrote in their decision. “Those new techniques make it possible to produce genetically modified varieties at arate out of all proportion to those resulting from the application of conventional methods of mutagenesis.”
Organisms which have been modified through the use of gene editing techniques have received a mixed reception during their rollout over the past few decades. Their advances in disease resistance, nutrition, and other areas have been hailed by futurists and others as the next frontier in agriculture. They’ve brought problems, too; herbicide-resistant plants have encouraged heavy spraying, large agribusiness corporations have trademarked their genomes, and small farmers that don’t want to get into the GMO scene have sometimes found themselves boxed out by modified competitors.
GMOs have also raised flags with skeptics and consumer advocates who fear that rearranging the genes of plants will open a Pandora’s box of health problems and complications. Although GMOs have proven thoroughly safe in the literature, regulatory agencies have been unsure of how exactly to regulate, label, or restrict the new products. That’s prompted a vigorous discussion across the food safety spectrum of what actions might be appropriate to attend to the products, with disagreement abounding in nearly every area. Take labelling, for example: advocates of more consumer information have pushed for clear labels on GMO products, while some in the industry have argued that the stickers would effectively be a scarlet letter on their wares, driving away customers who fear the label indicates some finding of fault or health risk with the food in question.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)