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Scientific innovation

Let European scientists participate in the gene-revolution

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A French scientist has won a Nobel Prize for a technology that has been made illegal for use in agriculture by the European Union...

One wonders how exactly the news was received in the European Commission when two female scientists, one of which French, received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the development of the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9. The discovery of Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and Jenifer Doudna from the University of California has far-reaching positive impacts for the work of medicine, but also for industry and consumers in the area of energy and agriculture. However, due to outdated EU-legislation dating back to the beginning of the century, genetic engineering is not legal to be used in food.

When EU Directive 2001/18/EC (a piece of legislation governing the use of GMOs) was introduced, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jenifer Doudna had not yet developed CRISPR-Cas9. However, in 2018, the European Court of Justice delivered a ruling that declares products derived from directed mutagenesis (gene-editing) illegal under the said directive, because it is a GMO. Whether or not gene-edited foods and GMOs are the same is a scientific conversation that would overwhelm the scope of this article, but for the sake of understanding the irony of the ECJ ruling, readers ought to know this: random mutagenesis is legal under EU law, while gene-editing is not. Random mutagenesis has been practised in Europe for decades, and is less safe than precise gene-editing.

Interestingly, this is not an uninformed take on the matter, but the assessment of the European Commission's own Group of Chief Scientific Advisors, from a statement back in November 2018. On the issue of random mutagenesis, they also write:

"The resulting mutant organisms (in this case plants) require lengthy screening of the organisms’ characteristics to identify the few mutants that carry a novel desirable feature and do not present any unwanted features. Despite this lengthy screening process, the ultimately selected end products are likely to carry additional mutations beyond the ones resulting in the desired trait, each of which can be considered to be an ‘unintended effect’. Such unintended effects can be harmful, neutral or beneficial with respect to the final product."

In the absence of listening to its own scientists, the European Union is lagging behind the rest of the world. The Consumer Choice Center has, together with the Genetic Literacy Project, released the Gene Editing Regulation Index, which compares the regulatory leniency of governments in different regions of the world. Needless to say, the European Union does not score well. It is time for policymakers to stand up for science and innovation and let Europe remain a global powerhouse of breakthroughs.


We need to allow European scientists to participate in the gene-revolution, and have them work together with farmers to release the innovations of the future. As I have laid out on the blog of the Consumer Choice Center, recent gene-editing innovations allow us to produce more paper with less resources, and make salmon less prone to disease and more affordable for consumers. Through genetic engineering, we can both fight the challenge of climate and that of increasing population.

Let us usher in a century of innovation in Europe, and let European scientists lead the charge.

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