There are some big caveats, however. Firstly, even if the European Commission does get its way, new regulations will apply only to gene-edited crops and not the kind of GMOs widely grown in the US. Secondly, two of the most widely grown crops in the EU are wheat and barley, and there aren’t gene-edited versions of those crops that are ready to be put straight in the ground.
In other words, any emissions reductions from a change in gene-editing regulations wouldn’t come quickly. But more drought-tolerant crops might not be too far away. Kovak points out that drought-tolerant wheat has already been approved in Argentina, although that too is a GMO crop. If the EU and its 450 million inhabitants do become a new market for gene-edited crops, however, that might be an incentive for agricultural firms to produce new drought-resistant varieties of European staples.
If gene-edited crops do become deregulated in the EU, then it’s likely that the first to come to market will be fruits and vegetables rather than big commodity crops, as many of these already have GMO versions and manufacturers might be unwilling to create new gene-edited varieties for just the European market. Big agricultural companies have tended to avoid modifying lower-value foods such as fruit and vegetables because of the large costs associated with developing new GMO varieties—but gene editing is much cheaper. In the US, a CRISPR-edited mushroom was the first gene-edited food to be approved for sale. In the UK, Martin is doing her first field trials on tomatoes that have been gene edited to contain a precursor to vitamin D. These trials were possible only because the country recently eased regulations around field trials of gene-edited crops, as part of a post-Brexit breakaway from EU-era regulations.
Legislation to deregulate gene-edited crops in the EU may have a much tougher path ahead. The European Commission’s study has been staunchly opposed by groups such as Greenpeace and Slow Food, an organization that promotes local and traditional cooking within the EU. If a change in regulation is to pass, the commission will have to convince the European Council, and then legislation will be put to a vote in the European Parliament. In a bloc with such strong food traditions, it’s likely there will be a lot of resistance to new rules for gene-edited crops.
But Petra Jorasch, a spokesperson for Euroseeds, a group representing European seed companies, says that gene-editing technology could actually help preserve local varieties. Gene editing might mean that the Riesling grape could be made to be resistant to a certain fungi, for example, while still retaining all the other qualities of a Riesling. “If you could use those technologies to improve the fungi resistance in a wine, you would have the same crop with this added resistance and less fungicide use,” she says.
Kovak says that the best way to convince voters and legislators might be to emphasize that increasing crop yields in the EU would make it easier for the region to become more food secure and thus less vulnerable to fluctuations in food prices. And because gene editing is cheaper, consumers might also have more direct experience with edited crops in the form of nutritionally enhanced fruits and vegetables, like Martin’s tomatoes. “It opens the door to more improvements of produce,” Kovak says.