Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten wants room to experiment with CRISPR-Cas in order to accelerate the selection of crops. This is a beautiful ambition, but this room is not available in the current EU legislation yet, says Wageningen lawyer Kai Purnhagen.
© Jeroen Murré
Schouten is looking for possibilities to experiment with new selection techniques such as CRISPR-Cas, as she deems a ‘light form’ of genetic modification to be necessary to increase the sustainability of agriculture. Last summer, the European Court of Justice declared CRISPR-Cas to be a GMO technique, causing crops developed using this method to have to pass through a complex and expensive admission process. ‘I would like to have some room for CRISPR-Cas experiments’, Schouten said in an interview in newspaper De Volkskrant on 31 October.
However, Wageningen lawyer Kai Purnhagen, who is well-versed in European legislation, does not see any room for experiments within the current GMO legislation. ‘There are good reasons to treat the CRISPR-Cas methods differently to conventional GMOs in legislation’, Purnhagen says. ‘But the European Court of Justice has clearly stated that new selection techniques which use mutagenesis should be treated as GMOs in European legislation. This ruling can only be amended by the legislative authority of the EU.’
Purnhagen does not see much margin in the policy for the member states to be able to experiment within the boundaries of legislation. He suggests that the Netherlands could perhaps receive an exemption from the GMO legislation if the products created using CRISPR-Cas would not be released in nature or on the food market.
The European Court of Justice makes an exception for mutagenesis techniques from before 2001; those techniques are part of an exception within the GMO legislation. New selection techniques are also eligible for this exception provided that they can demonstrate a “long safety record”. It is not stated how long this “history” should be. Perhaps this opens possibilities to quickly declare new techniques to be safe, Purnhagen says, but that does not necessarily provide room for experimenting.
Purnhagen thinks that if Schouten wants room to experiment, the Netherlands will have to start by altering the European GMO legislation. This change is just as complex and takes just as much time as the safety procedure for GMOs.