Biologists want new rules for plant breeding

One year ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a ruling on genetic methods in plant breeding: on 25 July 2018, the judges ruled that plants bred using modern molecular biological methods (genome editing) fall into the category of genetically modified organisms. According to current EU legislation, these plants are to be strictly regulated - in contrast to plants that have been genetically modified using conventional methods, called mutagenesis.

The ruling surprised many experts. One of their arguments was that plants produced with modern gene editing techniques such as Crispr/Cas9, for example, cannot be distinguished from plants produced naturally or cultivated using conventional methods - a criterion that is decisive in other countries for not allowing them to fall into the category of genetically modified organisms.

On the occasion of the anniversary of the judgement, European plant researchers again draw attention to the discussion and jointly appeal to the EU to change the ruling and simplify the use of new methods. Many scientists from the University of Münster are also participating.

Their arguments for a change of regulation: The use of modern molecular genetic methods could contribute to making agriculture and food production more sustainable and environmentally friendly and to adapting plant cultivation to climate change. "Drought is increasingly threatening crop yields, as we are seeing again this year in Europe. In order to secure long-term food production, all available technologies must be used responsibly," stresses Jörg Kudla from the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology at Münster University, among others. With the help of modern plant breeding, scientists could, for example, develop new varieties that are less susceptible to diseases or more resistant to drought.

The current European legislation means for plant breeding that long and expensive processes have to be gone through in order to bring basic findings into practice. "The decision made a year ago is a setback for applied research. It can be said that it is the death of modern methods in plant breeding within the EU," says Dirk Prüfer, plant biotechnologist at Münster University. "The current rules should be changed to ensure responsible use of genome editing, so that Europe remains competitive in the future allowing the development of sustainable agriculture.”