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The history of crop improvement by genetic mutation goes back centuries. The initial slow process of selective breeding was enhanced in the 1950s using irradiation and toxic chemicals to increase mutation rates. Then in the 1990s, genetic modification (GM) allowed random introduction of pieces of DNA, often from foreign species, into the DNA of plants and animals. The possibility that GM might create rogue species led in 2001 to an EU directive that effectively banned the production of GM crops. But this directive specifically excluded organisms produced by radiation- or chemical-induced mutations because these were tried and tested techniques that produced many of today’s edible crops – wheat for example.
A recently discovered gene-editing technique called CRISPR, has vast potential for creating designer crops that could be more productive, adaptable to extreme climates, resistant to diseases, more nutritious, less allergenic and non-carcinogenic. CRISPR is a system of enzymes used by bacteria to fight off invading viruses. Now scientists have adapted it to provide a highly-targeted method for altering gene sequences. This is faster, cheaper and more accurate than traditional GM. And, crucially, it does not introduce foreign DNA into the host species. For this reason, many scientists equate its action with the EU-approved radiation and chemical-induced mutations.
So, the question the EU Court of Justice had to consider was: is CRISPR a form of GM or more aligned to chemical and radiation-induced mutagenesis? On July 25 2018, the court decided that CRISPR involves genetic modification and should therefore be subject to the 2001 EU directive. This ruling is welcome news for certain environmentalist organisations with concerns about release of GM organisms into the environment. But it is a major blow for scientists intent on improving world crop production, as it prevents any EU commercial developments using CRISPR.
Now multinationals are likely to move elsewhere, but maybe once Brexit is realised the UK will join the US, Canada, Japan and several South American countries in embracing this new technology.