Impression of the COGEM International Symposium ‘Gene edited crops; global perspectives and regulation’

Other publications | 19.10.2019 | CGM/191016-01

10 October 2019, The Hague, The Netherlands

Gene editing of crops is still a hot topic of debate in Europe, although in 2018 the EU Court of Justice ruled that plants obtained by targeted mutagenesis or gene editing are GMOs. The current GMO legislation based on the process of modification is not future-proof in light of advances made in genetic modification technology, and many stakeholders advocate the transition to a product-based legislation. During the International Symposium on 10th October 2019, organized by the Netherlands Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), the possibilities and limitations that gene editing offers for plant breeding and crop improvement are discussed, meanwhile addressing the global perspectives and the worldwide differences in regulation and governance.

More than 100 scientists, policymakers, consultants, regulators and representatives from breeding companies around the world, gathered on 10th October 2019 in the beautiful, richly decorated Assembly Hall of the Senate  of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, to discusses the complicated issue of gene editing of crops in light of the ruling of the European Court of Justice and the different global developments.  The location was chosen carefully. “The Senate has a special position in the Dutch parliament as it is referred to as the chamber of reflection,” says professor Sybe Schaap, Chairman  of COGEM, during his welcome speech. “It is appropriate metaphor for the subject of today’s meeting since all the discussions on gene editing and its consequences require reflection.”

Photo: Overview over the Assembly Hall of the Senate of the Dutch Parliament, and the Chair of COGEM. prof Sybe Schaap

Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, who gave the opening speech of the symposium, showed an optimistic view about the innovative power of the agricultural industry in de the past and into the future. She was confident that policy could change things for the better. “Our legislation has to be up to date and future proof and our decision making process efficient and fair. But the current European legislation for genetically modified crops is not ready for the future. Of course we have to comply with European law. That doesn’t mean that the Dutch government will sit on its hands. We will make a strong case in Europe for putting GMO legislation back on the agenda.”

In support of that Schaap handed over the first copy of the COGEM policy report to Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen. The report addresses the implications of introducing a product-based legislation in Europe similar to Canada. “This study reveals the complexity of the issue and concludes that there is not a simple yes or no. That is why we choose the title: No rose without thorns, expressing the complexity in decision making that has to come,” Schaap said.

Photo: The first edition of the COGEM advice “No Rose without Thorns ” was presented to the Dutch minister of Infrastructure and Water management Cora van Nieuwenhuizen.

During the day several inspiring session evolved on four mean topics ‘plant breeding & gene editing, ‘global perspectives on gene editing in crops’, ‘normative criteria in regulation’ and ‘governance’. The many contributions from countries in and outside of Europe, made it a very fruitful meeting with new insights. Several key issues were addressed during the talks and discussions, such as the impact of gene editing on plant breeding and innovation, the differences perspectives of the plant breeding industry and the organic sector, the safeguarding of freedom of choice of consumers and producers, and the difficulty of detection of food an feed plant products obtained by gene editing. Also it was questioned if a restrictive GMO policy as the European Court ruled is morally justified.

Representatives of Japan, USA and Argentina presented the different perspective and approaches on gene editing in crops and the regulations and governance in their countries. Although these countries are also struggling on how to regulate gene editing in plants and resulting products, their approaches allowed innovation to continue instead of holding back the tide as is the situation in the Europe.

In light of these global developments in leading countries as Canada, China, US, Japan and Argentina, it is not really an option to do nothing and leave the directive unchanged. Innovation and science will continue, and companies will be leaving Europe or relocate their research activities.

Therefor the way forward, as felt by the large majority of the participants, will be the revision of the EU GMO Directive. But it will be a long term process. The first step is to get the issue back on the agenda of the new European Committee. Then the Dutch discussion proposal of 2017 on how plants derived by gene editing could be regulated, completed with current proposals and experiences of Norway, Finland, France, and Germany, will be put back on the table again.

The closing remarks of professor Nico van Straalen of COGEM at the end of the meeting were hopeful. “We heard on the one hand an enormous disparity of approaches to deal with the issue. But we also saw a number of commonalities that we should foster. The product based and process based approaches that we thought were really very different are actually not so different after all.” Van Straalen felt that “the times they are changing”, referring to a song he sang as a teenager. And he hoped that all the participants would one day look back upon this meeting and remember that that began on 10th of October!

More photo’s and a report of the COGEM International Symposium will be available within a month.