New legislation will allow for the increased use of new genomic techniques in plant research and crop development, writes Dr Ailbhe Brazel of the Department of Biology.

In February, the European Parliament voted to support proposed legislation to relax rules regarding crops that have been developed with new genomic techniques.

These allow plant researchers to rapidly develop crops with specific traits, such as resilience to stresses like disease or flooding, that cannot be achieved as quickly in nature or with conventional breeding methods.

The use of such crops could have major positive implications for sustainable agriculture and mitigating the effects of climate change. The European Council will now enter negotiations regarding the final laws that will be put in place.

How have plant breeding practices evolved?

Plant traits can change when the genes controlling these traits are modified. Importantly, spontaneous mutations are constantly arising naturally in all organisms. These random changes are an important feature of the Darwinian theory of evolution which states that when a mutation happens to be beneficial for an organism, natural selection of that mutation will occur.

In conventional plant breeding practices, breeders artificially select plants with mutations causing traits they consider beneficial and cross these plants together to generate offspring with combinations of beneficial traits. However, introducing conventional methods can be extremely time consuming and take many generations and years to perform.

Genetic editing techniques have been used by researchers for decades. Once researchers figure out the genes involved in specific processes, we can modify them to change particular traits in that organism or introduce them to new organisms. Established genomic techniques introduce genetic changes that cannot occur through nature or conventional breeding methods.

How do these techniques work?

These techniques usually involve taking a section of DNA from one species and artificially inserting it into a second species. This can bestow a new trait to the second species, for example the increased production of beneficial vitamins or better tolerance of environmental stresses such as drought, flooding or disease.

New genomic technologies (NGTs) allow extremely precise targeted genetic editing that was previously unattainable. They cause precise changes to an organism’s DNA or introduce new segments of DNA to an organism from another species that is naturally able to be introduced into the recipient. It is important to remember that these crops only contain changes that could arise naturally or through conventional breeding practices, but these changes are achieved with NGTs at an extremely rapid pace.

In 2012, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna published a new genetic editing tool, called CRISPR-Cas9, that would revolutionise the field of life sciences. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their discovery of this novel "genetic scissors" which allowed researchers to, in principal, make specific changes to targeted regions of the genome of any organism.

Both Charpentier and Doudna recently signed an open letter calling on members of European Parliament to approve the use of NGTs in the EU. Signed by other Nobel laureates and over 1,500 scientists, the letter highlighted the widespread support for this issue amongst the academic community.

Genetically modified crops right now

The current EU legislation on cultivating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was adopted in 2001 before NGTs, which could introduce much smaller and highly targeted genetic changes, were developed. The cultivation of GMOs is tightly regulated in the EU and requires strict controls and risk assessments to be performed before approval, with member states each having the final say on whether GMOs can be released on their soil.

Only one GMO crop is approved for cultivation in the EU, while over 90 other GMO crops are authorised for food or feed use in the EU. This GMO corn contains a foreign gene encoding a protein that is toxic to butterflies and moths that usually feed on corn. The use of this GMO crop in the EU resulted in a reduction in the use of pesticides and higher crop yields.

The example of GMO corn demonstrates the potential advantages of cultivating genetically modified crops in the EU. Further afield, over 190 hectares of GMO crops were grown in 2019 in the US, Canada and Australia. Rules regarding GMOs have been relaxed in the UK, paving the way for the development and cultivation of GMO crops.

But despite their widespread use globally, the lengthy and difficult process of authorisation has hindered the approval of GMO crops for cultivation in the EU. Currently, NGT plants are subject to the EU legislation that was developed for GMOs back in 2001. A recently-published report stated that the EU could be facing an economic loss of €300 billion annually by not adopting NGTs.

What will the new legislation mean?

The new legislation that was drafted by the European Commission in July 2023 proposed to relax regulations that apply to NGTs in the EU and calls for the introduction of two categories of NGT plants. The first would contain NGT plants that are "indistinguishable" from plants that could occur naturally or be produced through conventional breeding practices. This category of plants would be exempt from the current restrictive EU legislation on GMO plants.

The second category would include genetically modified plants that contain more complex modifications that could not occur naturally or through conventional breeding methods, such as the introduction of a gene from a species that cannot naturally be crossed with the recipient. Plants in this second category would remain subject to the more restrictive GMO legislation currently in place.

The text of this legislation was approved by the European Parliament in February of this year by a close margin and the new legislation has not yet been approved by the European Council. If the regulations surrounding NGT plants are relaxed, it will open up new avenues for crop breeding research across the EU. This has the potential to increase food security, reduce land, pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser usage and mitigate the negative environmental impacts of climate change.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm