Gene editing in agriculture takes centre stage next Wednesday when Europe’s highest court rules in a case that could determine the fate of the technology that is already making waves in the field of medicine. The European Union has long restricted the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) widely adopted around the world, but there is legal uncertainty as to whether modern gene editing of crops should fall under the same strict GMO rules. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will rule whether the use of genetic mutation, or mutagenesis, which is now exempt from GMO rules, should differentiate between techniques that have been used for decades and the new gene-editing technology. The biotech industry argues that much of gene editing is effectively little different to the mutagenesis that occurs naturally or is induced by radiation – a standard plant breeding method since the 1950s. But environmentalists, anti-GM groups and farmers concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of all genetically engineered products fear that allowing gene editing would usher in a new era of “GMO 2.0” via the backdoor. Gene editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 tool and other techniques has the potential to make hardier and more nutritious crops – as well as offering drug companies new ways to fight human disease. U.S biotech firm Calyxt, for example, has gene edited soybeans to produce healthier oil with no trans fats and it is growing 17,000 acres of its new design across the US Midwest this year. Big agrochemical specialists such as Germany’s Bayer and US firm DowDuPont are also stepping up investment in the technology. The case before the ECJ was brought by a group of French agricultural associations that want the existing EU exemption for plant varieties obtained via mutagenesis to be restricted to long-standing conventional techniques. 50 Times Faster While older GMO technology typically adds new DNA to a crop or animal, gene editing can cause a mutation by changing a few pieces of DNA code. It works with great speed and precision, like the find-and-replace function on a word processor. “Anything you can do by standard mutagenesis you can do 10 or maybe 50 times quicker,” said Johnathan Napier, who is leading a trial at Rothamsted Research which has involved the sowing of the first gene-edited crops in Britain. He said the first wave of gene-edited crops may involve removing harmful elements from food, such as developing peanuts without peanut allergens or castor bean oil without ricin toxin. But critics say the technology is not yet proven safe – an argument that may have gained weight this week after research suggested gene editing can cause risky collateral DNA damage. So far, the signs are that the court may lean towards the biotech industry’s view. ECJ advocate general Michal Bobek advised in January that organisms could be exempt from GMO rules if they did not have added foreign DNA. The advocate general’s view is not binding but is usually followed by ECJ judges. Published in Daily Times, July 21st 2018.