The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that new genetic engineering techniques such as genome editing and the resulting organisms that are created are covered by the GMO Directive. In a new position paper, the Oeko-Institut emphasises that there is now a need for an informed analysis of opportunities and risks and a social evaluation to ensure responsible use of the techniques in future.
Genome editing encompasses a range of new methods of genetic engineering that differ from traditional methods in that they enable scientists to intervene in an organism’s genetic makeup with great precision, thereby introducing new functions. For example, it would be possible for disease-resistant plants to be bred faster, more easily and more precisely. These would require less use of fertilisers and pesticides and therefore contribute to sustainable agriculture. However, the latest research shows that there can often be unintended impacts – known as off-target effects – on the genome. The Oeko-Institut therefore welcomes the decision of the European Court of Justice with its emphasis on across-the-board application of the precautionary principle.
Unbiased assessment of opportunities and risks
In the view of the Oeko-Institut, developers and users of the new genetic engineering techniques have extensive responsibility for the impacts of these techniques on health and the environment, especially on account of the particular accuracy of their interventions. An appropriate legal framework for this now exists that will ensure that possible risks are analysed in detail before modified organisms are used in agriculture. At the same time, the institute’s researchers call for the opportunities for more sustainable agriculture to be reviewed, specified and evaluated in the same way as the risks.
“To enable the opportunities that exist to be used, we need comprehensive research to support further development of the new genetic engineering techniques,” says Martin Möller, Deputy Head of the Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division at the Oeko-Institut. “We must look in detail at how this technology can remove the need for environmentally damaging practices in agriculture. We also need to be clear about the risks, such as unintended harmful effects.”
Reliable legal and social framework needed
In view of the possible intervention depth of the new genetic engineering techniques, the broad scope for application and the ease with which extensive user groups can access them, the Oeko-Institut considers comprehensive implementation of the GMO Directive based on the precautionary principle to be essential.
“Consistent application of genetic engineering law will clarify important questions of risk assessment and risk management in relation to the new genetic engineering techniques,” says Andreas Hermann, Senior Researcher in the Institute’s Environmental Law & Governance Division. “There must then be social discussion of the opportunities and risks based on the new insights that emerge. It is essential to do this before amending genetic engineering law in any way in future.”