Farmers concerned over consequences of GM ruling in Europe

The European Court of Justice’s (ECJ’s) decision to regulate gene-edited crops in the same way as GM crops – is on Irish farmer’s minds. It was brought up at both the Dairygold tillage conference and the Teagasc National Tillage Conference this week.

Speaking on the ruling Ewen Mullins – the newly appointed head of crops research at Teagasc – stated: “Our view on the gene-editing ruling was disappointing – that’s basically it in a nutshell.”

Despite the ruling Ewen made the point that it won’t affect his research, but it will stop varieties from being pushed out using this technique.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but it actually has no effect on research, because we can use editing in Oak Park. We have a licence to do it and we are doing it.

“From a research perspective it has no impact. We’ll still use it as a means to characterise gene function, but in terms of pushing stuff [varieties] out into the field it’s disappointing that we can’t use it in that regard.”

From a disease resistance perspective

Steven Kildea – plant pathologist at Teagasc Oak Park – described the effect the ruling could have on producing disease resistant varieties. Gene-editing can speed up this process significantly.

“Clearly, if we’re actually saying that we need more resistant varieties then of course having the tools to be able to produce those in a quicker timeframe is very, very important.

Undoubtedly, you would like to see the technology that is available being used to support what we currently have.

“I think it’s about understanding the potential benefits of that and I think going hand-in-hand with the chemistry is very, very important,” Steven added.

Integrated pest management

At the Dairygold tillage conference, one farmer asked how the ruling will affect future varieties coming onto the market?

In response to the question, Teagasc tillage specialist Ciaran Collins outlined how integrated pest management (IPM) is an essential part of Irish tillage farmers’ businesses.

“The variety is the first stage in IPM for everybody. We have legislation that everyone in this room is trying to implement, as part of their basic payment, and the variety is the first line in that.”

Ciaran went on to describe how losing technologies, as a result of the ruling, is almost like a contradiction.

He explained that slower breeding techniques can result in the continued application of fungicides and a lack of progress in breeding new traits in varieties for yield, as well as resistance.

“It’s probably a double-edged sword from that perspective,” Ciaran added.

EU meeting

At the beginning of January (January 7) the ruling came into the spotlight when a joint meeting was held between the European committee on the environment, public health and food safety and the committee on agricultural and rural development.

At the meeting MEP Mairead McGuinness stated that the discussion needs to be based on facts and science.

“I think it is very much a scientific discussion we should have. We all of course come with our own baggage.

I come from a member state that doesn’t grow GMO, but we use it in animal feed, as do most countries; in fact, all member states do because we rely on imported protein.

“We need to be mature about this debate and understand the consequences of the ruling and look at whether the legislation that currently exists, that this ruling applies to, is fit for purpose,” McGuinness concluded.

What is gene-editing?

At the Teagasc National Tillage Conference Ewen Mullins explained what gene-editing is and how it is a form of mutagenesis.

“We’ve been developing new varieties through mutagenesis since the 1940s and 1950s using chemicals or x-rays which effectively change thousands of genes within a plant. Then you have to screen all these different lines and identify the one that has the various different characteristics that you want.”

Ewen explained that with this technique for example disease resistance might be increased in a variety, but maturity could be delayed by eight weeks.

Gene-editing allows you to go in and change one single gene; so it’s mutagenesis version 2.0.

“You’re effectively using proteins as a molecular scissors to do that,” he added.

Ewen also explained that there is a huge amount of scientific research to support the opinion that gene-editing is a form of mutagenesis.

The initial perspective from the ECJ was that gene-editing is a form of mutagenesis and therefore was outside the GMO legislation in the EU.

He expressed disappointment at the decision to categorise gene-editing as a GM technique.

Any plants developed through editing within Europe for cultivation have to go through that GMO pipeline, which is expensive and time-consuming.