The European Commission, which is the executive arm of the European Union, recently announced that it intends to loosen rules for gene-edited plants. Seeds derived through gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR Cas-9 have been unavailable for commercialization in Europe since their development, based on legislation dating back to 2001. In a way, Brussels is correcting the record by recognizing that gene-edited crops are different to transgenic crops, which are often referred to as GMOs.
What is interesting is why the European Union, which is generally prone to listening to the arguments of environmental campaigners who vehemently oppose any agricultural innovation (all too often at the doorsteps of the Commission's main offices in Brussels, Belgium), suddenly announces this decision that will be cause for controversial debate over the next few years. The expectation by the EU is that gene-editing will increase varieties while boosting the resilience of crops to climate change, pests, and diseases and to develop plants that require fewer fertilizers. That is both an accurate assessment, but it was equally accurate years ago when the U.S, Canada or Brazil started using the technology effectively. So what changed?
The war in Ukraine has made Europe aware of the vulnerabilities in its food system. Ukraine is the largest exporter of non-GMO animal feed into the EU, and Russia and Belarus are major producers of the three main fertilizer nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. With the war and the surrounding trade restrictions (both legal and practical) disrupting the flow of goods, Europe is dealing with rising food prices. This comes at a time when the bloc was gearing up for agricultural reform: cutting pesticide use and reducing farmland in an effort to meet its own ambitious green policies.
The reality of global trade and the limitations and needs of its food system have caught up with Europe. During the 2010s, a trade agreement between the United States and the EU failed after environmental campaigners had decried the TTIP agreement as unfair competition and a backdoor to bringing what they describe as "Frankenfoods" onto the European market. A decade later, environmentalists still see genetic engineering the same way, but the overwhelming scientific evidence relating to its safety and efficiency has a larger part of the population inclined to give it a try, not merely because the potential of innovative food solving the problems of tomorrow is immense.
There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that despite the announcement of allowing gene-edited crops, they're far away from actually reaching European supermarkets. Manufacturers and legislators will need to jump through a long line of hoops, and the most realistic scenario for commercialized gene-edited crops in shops is 2030. That said, the good news is that the EU dropping its restrictions on gene-editing means that there are fewer conflicts in global trade policy that might prevent Europe from trading food with the world, including on those on whom it currently levies punitive tariffs, such as the U.S.
Ultimately, things are looking up for European consumers and farmers if the restrictive reforms that had been planned are finally canned and innovative agricultural practices hit the market.