Science - August 19, 2010

Deadlock over GMOs continues

The approval procedure for cisgenetic and transgenetic plants will not be relaxed, VROM minister Huizinga ruled during the summer vacation. New guidelines are needed to iron out the differences between genetic engineering and classical breeding.

A crop into which genes (of the same species - cisgenetic) with favourable attributes are introduced may not necessarily be safer than a crop into which attributes from other plants (transgenic) are introduced. This matter was raised by the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment (VROM) in July, based on advice from Rikilt, the Institute of Food Safety in Wageningen. As such, no changes will be made in the regulations for approving new plant species in Europe. The approval tests for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to be more extensive and expensive than for crops resulting from classical breeding.
Clumsy
And yet, Esther Kok of Rikilt declares: 'This regulation is stifling. Almost every expert has in the meantime agreed that the difference in breeding methods - GMO versus classical - no longer gives a good indication of the safety of products. 'Cisgenesis enables a gene construction to be introduced neatly into a plant, without other characteristics being transferred at the same time. This can happen, though, with classical breeding, says Kok. 'And yet, a cisgene-bred product has to be subjected to extensive control, whereas the traditionally bred product does not. That's clumsy.'
Properties
Rikilt has proposed that inbred characteristics, and not the method, should determine how extensive a new crop needs to be tested before it can be approved. Kok: 'The first question should be: is the new product different from products which we already know? Subsequently, the safety aspects can be tested specifically.' In practice, the Rikilt proposal will entail that classical breeding also needs to be tested and many GMOs would be tested less extensively. 'Currently, the regulation often prescribes animal testing studies for GMOs', explains Kok. 'These wouldn't be necessary anymore in many cases because we can already analytically establish in those cases if undesirable changes have taken place.'
Differences of opinion
The minister has postponed the debate of the approval criteria in the lower house of the Dutch government. She wants to wait for a report from Brussels in which a European taskforce on new breeding techniques will determine if these should fall under the GMO regulation. 'That report has already been delayed for one and a half years', says Kok. 'It ought to be released at the end of this year.' The European countries differ in their opinions on the approval of GMOs and these differences are being sorted out by this taskforce. 'The old differences of opinion between those for and those against still exist.' This deadlock hinders the approval procedures from being modernized.

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