News - October 16, 2019

Wanted: one million signatures to change European breeding legislation

According to a number of WUR students, European legislation unnecessarily gets in the way of new breeding techniques. That is why they started the European citizens’ initiative Grow Scientific Progress. They now need to collect one million signatures. Four questions for Jibbe Keulen (27), a Master's student in biotechnology and one of the founders of the initiative.

By Bregje van der Bolt

Why did you submit a proposal?
‘The current legislation is impeding innovation by lumping together different techniques. The first legislation regarding genetic modification was initiated in 2001 and specifically focused on transgenic crops. Transgenic means that a gene from a different type of organism is inserted into the DNA of these crops. The 2001 legislation does not mention mutagenesis in any way. In mutagenesis, the genetic material is changed in a way that could also occur spontaneously in nature. In 2018, the European Court decided that modern mutagenesis techniques would also fall under this legislation.’

What about older mutagenesis techniques that have been used for years?
‘Those do not fall under this regulation, because their safety has been demonstrated. They refer to the use of radiation or chemicals to cause random mutations, for example. And despite the fact that the old and new techniques are both used to create the exact same product, the new techniques fall under this legislation, but the old techniques do not.’

How do these new techniques differ from the old ones?
‘The new techniques can lead to far better targeted mutations of the DNA. While conventional methods make use of random mutations, with new techniques like CRISPR‑Cas9, we are able to adjust only those genes that have an effect on the trait that we want to select. This means that we are not bothered by other random mutations occurring, as is the case with conventional techniques. Basically, the new methods perform the exact same changes, but with these, the breeding of crops becomes much faster and more precise.’

If an identical product can be made using both the old and the new techniques, we do not see why one should be allowed and the other should not.

What do you want to achieve through your citizens' initiative?
‘We want a clear distinction to be made between techniques that use mutagenesis and techniques that use transgenesis. We think that the product should be assessed instead of just looking at the technique. If an identical product can be made using both the old and the new techniques, we do not see why one should be allowed and the other should not.’

What next?
‘We think it would be a good idea to create a list of properties that are considered safe. If a product only has properties from this list and does not contain any foreign DNA, it should fall outside the scope of gene legislation. This in contrast to the crops with foreign DNA; those regulations can remain strict, in our opinion.’

Could the debate on this topic be improved?
‘Absolutely. It is very important that the debate about these techniques be conducted in a scientific and substantive manner. These techniques influence our daily lives, and everyone should know more on the subject. We therefore see it as an important task to start this conversation.’

What is the current state of matters?
‘So far, we have collected 5,320 signatures. We have until 25 July 2020 to turn that into a million. We are currently working on increasing our support as much as possible through social media and by emailing institutions. However, we have found out that it is quite a bit of work to do with just eight people, especially as we all are full-time students. We are now looking into expanding our team. Preferably with people who have experience in the field of communication and strategy, but everyone who can contribute is welcome.’

Read more about the citizens' initiative on the Grow Scientific Progress website.