The European Union (EU) Commission is set to release a draft proposal for the regulation of New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) in July 2023. NGTs, also known as gene editing techniques, involve targeted mutations in the genome of living organisms. This article aims to explain NGTs, their distinction from traditional breeding methods, their potential benefits and risks in agriculture, and the need for effective regulation of NGT-derived products.
Understanding New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) and Differentiation from Traditional Breeding
NGTs enable precise editing of an organism’s genes, resulting in desired traits within a few generations. Notably, NGTs do not involve the insertion of foreign genetic material, unlike genetically modified organisms (GMOs) produced through biotechnology. CRISPR/Cas9 is one such NGT, allowing precise DNA editing at the base level. Traditional breeding methods, on the other hand, rely on time-consuming crossing processes, which may lead to unintended mutations.
Differentiating NGT-Derived Foods from GMOs
NGT-derived foods are created through targeted editing of an organism’s existing genes, while GMOs involve the transfer of genes between species. Currently, there is no production of NGT-derived plants or animals in the EU due to strict regulations on GMOs. However, imported goods like processed foods and animal feed may contain NGT-derived components.
Examples and Benefits of NGTs in Agriculture
While NGT production is limited in the EU, other regions are experiencing progress. NGT-derived crops include salt-tolerant rice, virus-resistant cassava, high oleic acid soybeans, and non-browning bananas. The benefits of NGTs in agriculture are significant. They enable rapid adaptation to changing conditions, enhance breeding speed, increase yields, reduce pesticide use, and contribute to sustainable food production and farmer incomes. NGTs can also address challenges posed by climate change and plant diseases.
Potential Risks and Regulation of NGTs
One concern is the unknown impact of NGTs on wild relatives of crops and the unintended release of new genetic traits into nature. The use of “gene drive,” a powerful NGT designed to eliminate entire populations, requires careful study. If NGTs are used to create herbicide-resistant crops, it may lead to increased herbicide usage. However, ongoing research aims to enhance plant defense mechanisms rather than relying on pesticides.
Safety of NGT-Derived Foods
Scientific evidence suggests that NGT-derived foods do not pose higher risks than those derived from other breeding technologies. Naturally occurring genetic changes between generations and the precise mutations achieved by NGTs during evolution minimize health concerns. Nevertheless, all food products undergo safety testing regardless of the breeding technology employed.
Global Presence and Regulation of NGTs
Currently, NGT-derived crops are primarily grown in North and South America. Developing countries in Africa and South Asia are also embracing NGTs. Countries such as Japan, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and Kenya have implemented regulations that differentiate NGT-derived products from GMOs.
Effective Regulation for Sustainable Crops
The EU Court of Justice classified NGT-derived products as GMOs, subjecting them to strict European GMO legislation. However, a more nuanced approach is required. Evaluating NGT-derived products on a case-by-case basis, considering their specific attributes rather than categorically banning the method, is essential. Rigorous safety testing, traceability, labeling, and evidence-based communication of the environmental benefits of NGTs empower informed consumer choices.
The proposed regulation of NGTs by the EU Commission highlights the need for effective oversight and regulation. NGTs offer significant benefits in agriculture, including enhanced breeding speed, increased yields, and reduced pesticide usage. Mitigating