The European Court of Justice’s ruling that genome editing techniques be classified as genetic engineering will harm prospects for developing economies to improve crop technologies which could reduce global health problems and boost financial security.
That’s according to Dr Kiran K Sharma, leader for the Agribusiness and Innovation Platform and principal scientist – cell biology at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, based in Hyderabad, India.
Dr Sharma said Europe, a major agricultural importer, “is dictating how we grow food for them”.
“I think with time people will understand the problem, when food is short,” he said.
“Right now Europeans object to everything because they don’t have that problem.”
Genome editing is done by precise cutting and pasting of an organism’s DNA with molecular scissors, whereas genetic engineering has typically meant switching DNA between different species.
The court ruling means food products from gene-edited crop varieties will be labelled as genetically modified organisms (GMO) in European Union countries. Read more here.
Imports of GMO food is allowed into most EU countries, but many ban production within their jurisdiction.
While the ‘frankenfood’ perception of GMO crops has scared a large cohort of consumers, banning cultivation of GMO crops could curb research investment from wealthier nations.
Gene editing has the potential to address significant problems in developing nations.
“This (EU) decision will send European agriculture back into the dark ages,” said CropLife chief executive Matthew Cossey.
“It is time Europe genuinely commits to contributing to global food nutrition and security, and to do anything else is morally reprehensible when global food nutrition and security remains such a significant challenge.”
ICRISAT had a major breakthrough last year in developing a groundnut (peanut) variety that is resistant to aflatoxin.
Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus that is particularly prevalent in peanut crops. There is no natural resistance in existing varieties.
ICRISAT developed a biotechnology through gene editing to produce a peanut variety with a defence mechanism that prevents aflatoxin from growing.
Aflatoxin impacts 5 billion people globally. It reduces immunity, causes stunting in children and is a significant cause of cancers, particularly in the liver.
The World Health Organisation lists aflatoxin as a major cause of foodborne illness.
Aflatoxin causes economic harm as well.
Peanuts are a major crop for India and many Asian and African nations, but there are few export markets because western nations have stringent standards that bar access to peanuts with even low aflatoxin levels.
It attacks crops in dry conditions and flourishes under sub optimal storage conditions, particularly in hot climates that are common in developing countries.
”I don’t know why people are against farmers having access to better technology. The farmers don’t mind, it is the people who don’t matter that mind,” Dr Sharma said.
“Would you prefer a peanut with aflatoxin, or a gene edited peanut which has blocks the toxins pathway into the nut?”
Gene editing may be able to combat the parasitic witchweed, or striga, that decimates cereal crops in Africa, Dr Sharma said.
- The reporter travelled to India with assistance from the Crawford Fund and financial support from the DFAT Australia India Council.