Adrian Percy

Putting a Purpose Behind the Science

The recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) got me thinking about how scientific innovation has moved beyond the quiet confines of the laboratory to take center-stage in the court of public opinion. It’s an acknowledgement that science alone cannot win the day without strong support from consumers, or from those who make our laws or interpret them. And it’s up to all of us in agriculture to make sure we’re connecting with people by supporting a purpose, instead of a product.

The ECJ’s ruling on innovative plant breeding techniques involves a process known as mutagenesis. While the term may sound scary, literally every living thing on earth today can be traced back to some type of genetic modification, often initiated by random mutation. You might be surprised to learn that traditional plant breeding often relies on mutagenesis: More than 2,500 varieties of plants bred through mutagenesis have been commercially available since the 1930s.

So, what’s the big deal with this decision?

While noting that plants obtained using traditional mutagenesis techniques have a long safety record and are exempt from strict regulatory obligations – and after acknowledging that new breeding tools are unlike those using transgenic methods (the insertion of foreign genetic material into a host plant) – the ECJ ruled that foods produced by gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas are still GMOs and should be regulated as such. This interpretation is disappointing, but not completely unexpected, given the common misinformation surrounding modern plant breeding. Whatever the reasoning, unnecessary regulation undercuts the primary benefits of these new methods: bringing safe, healthy food choices to consumers quickly and cost-effectively.

Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy,
Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer

The beauty of gene editing is that it builds on our understanding of a plant’s natural genetic variability to select the characteristics that farmers want and consumers demand. Unlike classical breeding, which can take many years and thousands of random crosses, new methods are enabling breeders to develop desirable plants in a mere fraction of the time. In a world where pests are rapidly evolving and consumer preferences are quickly changing, developing the right plants at the right time ought to be encouraged.

In the past, developing new plant varieties was so resource-intensive and costly that only large research companies could realistically do so. With less expensive and more precise breeding tools, even small laboratories have the capability of making new discoveries. Not only will this help expand our collective body of knowledge, but it will spur innovation in developing nations, accelerate the creation of new varieties, and lead to a more sustainable food supply.

In the eyes of this European, regulating food based on process rather than outcome is not the way to address public concerns, nor can it satisfy our societal need for agriculture innovation. Without a clear appreciation of its benefits, innovation is often the first casualty in a system that relies too heavily on precaution over scientific reason. That is what worries me. How can a region that has been the source of some of history’s greatest scientific achievements continue to be relevant in a world that is increasingly dependent on future technological breakthroughs?

Plant breeding innovation is not going away because of this decision. Other parts of the world will proceed without the burden of unnecessary overregulation, even as European breeders and farmers are denied the opportunity to compete on a global playing field. But it doesn’t have to stay that way and we don’t need to turn back the clock on technology if all sides are willing to engage in a fruitful dialogue.

Let’s work together with lawmakers and regulators to draft meaningful regulations that advance the development of critically-needed innovations, while ensuring the protection of people and the environment. A good place to start is to reach a common understanding of the purpose behind the invention. It’s time we cast aside fear and put science to work for us to help make this world a better place for our families and our future.

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