Southern Crop

Southern Crop

Europe is Likely the Key to How NPTs Will be Regulated

Steven E. Cerier is an international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.

Outside of the US, there’s been a lot of attention paid to what’s happening in Europe, where GMOs face considerable public and political opposition. This despite the fact that the European Union is a major importer of GM corn and soybeans for animal feed.

Most EU nations do not grow GMO crops for either human or animal consumption. As of 2016, only Spain, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic grew modest amounts of GM corn.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council has come out in favor of utilizing new gene-editing techniques to grow crops.  But in 2015, the European Commission asked member states not to approve any CRISPR technology for crop cultivation until it had conducted a systematic review of the issue. The review, though, has been delayed.

Germany, in particular, has expressed considerable opposition toward GMOs, and now also plants developed via NBTs. In November 2016, for instance, German junior environment minister Jochen Flasbarth said:

The European Union should apply strict approval standards to new generations of gene-edited crops similar to those for genetically modified organisms…There is concern that without a strict approval process, plants with environmentally-dangerous properties could be allowed to spread without hindrance, hitting conventional farmers.

Some EU nations, however, appear to be more receptive to the growing of gene-edited crops. Sweden, in 2015, decided they did not have to be regulated, though the government indicated it would reverse its position if the EU disagreed. Finland has adopted a similar position, though unlike Sweden it has not conducted any gene-edited crop field trials. In September 2017, the Dutch government indicated that NBTs should not come under existing GMO legislation.

The best hope for NBTs in Europe may be in the UK, as it completes its departure from the EU. Some observers believe the island nation will be more tolerant of commercializing the technology. Among the groups already at work in the field is the John Innes Centre, which is developing a strain of barley that can make its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil. Professor Michael Bevan, a researcher at the John Innes Center, has warned about over-regulation of NBTs:

The EU Food Standards Agency has already be making pronouncements that they are going to classify anything that is not natural as GM. If they go ahead with such a decision, they will cut off many approaches for creating new foods and crops.


Here’s a look at how other nations are handling NBTs:

  • Canada has adopted a similar approach to NBTs as the US. An article published in Agriculture and the Food Chain entitled “Canadian Regulatory Perspectives on Genome Engineered Crops in Biotechnology” noted: “To date, Canadian regulators have assessed and approved ten different NBTs developed products, approving all of them for commercial production…Clearly Canada has established a science-based regulatory system that is flexible and capable of responding to new innovative products and technologies, without having to completely cease production approvals, such as is the case within the European Union.”
  • China has invested heavily in gene-editing technology and has conducted extensive research. Chinese scientists, for example, have developed a variety of disease-resistant wheat and yield-boosting rice. The government, however, has not sanctioned the cultivation of gene-edited crops or animals. Given the enormous amount of money China has allocated for biotechnology research, it seems likely that commercialization will follow at some point.
  •  Russia has adopted a policy of banning the importation and production of GMOs except those used for scientific purposes. In light of this stance, it seems highly unlikely it would sanction the cultivation of any crop developed via NBT.
  • In March 2017, the Israeli National Committee for Transgenic Plants ruled that plants grown using CRISPR technology will not be regulated. It should be noted, however, that Israel has conducted research on GMO plants but does not grow any GMO crops.
  • In South America, Argentina plans to review crops on a case-by-case basis, while Brazil is conducting a review of NBT methods.  It has allowed gene editing that resulted in cattle with larger muscle mass. It has also released gene edited mosquitos to combat the spread of the Zika virus and Dengue fever.
  • In January 2018, Australia announced plans to reconsider how it regulates NBTs, with a goal of reducing regulations for gene-editing technology.  Under the reforms, newer gene-editing technologies would not automatically be considered genetic modification and thus would not be reviewed under the strict GMO guidelines. In neighboring New Zealand, any plant produced via NBTs is considered to be a GMO and regulated as such.
  • The Japanese government has sanctioned field trials for gene-edited rice that is expected to increase yields. But it has not decided whether crops developed through gene-editing will be subject to the law that restricts the cultivation of GM crops.
  • The Indian government does not view plants developed via NBTs as automatically being GMOs. Instead, it has a policy of a case-by-case review. But given the strong domestic opposition to GMOs and the failure to approve the cultivation of GM brinjal (eggplant) and mustard seed, it seems likely that crops produced through NBTs will encounter the same difficulties.

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to last week’s article on the regulation of NBTs.  There are plenty of efforts underway to paint gene editing with the same brush as GMOs though the science doesn’t support that; they are different.  We support regulatory oversight of results and releases not breeding processes. 

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