Nobel laureates ask European Parliament to support new genomic techniques

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Alena Butusava
Image: Getty/Alena Butusava

Related tags gene editing crop health

An open letter signed by 35 Nobel laureates and more than 1,000 European scientists has been sent to Members of the European Parliament, pleading with them to ‘reject the darkness of anti-science fearmongering’ and vote in favour of new genomic techniques (NGTs) ahead of a key vote.

The letter​, coordinated by environmental NGO WePlanet, comes before the European Parliament’s environmental committee (ENVI) is set to vote on a proposal by the Commission to exempt NGTs from Europe's prohibitive GMO regulations. 

The plea is signed by pioneering biochemist Emmanuelle Charpentier and microbiologist Jennifer Doudna, who shared the 2020 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking discovery of CRISPR-cas9 – the gene-editing technique at the heart of the NGT debate. It is widely considered to be one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of biology, claimed the NGO. Other signatories include world-renowned authors Steven Pinker and Peter Singer. 

Using CRISPR-cas9 in plant breeding, argue the signatories, has the potential to dramatically reduce pesticide and fertiliser use in agriculture whilst increasing food security through the creation of climate-resilient plant varieties.

“NGTs hold immense promise for sustainable agriculture, enhanced food security and innovative medical solutions,” said the signatories. “We therefore encourage you to engage with the overwhelming majority of farmers and genuine experts, not with reactive anti-science lobbyists in the Brussels bubble. We implore you to vote in favour of NGTs.”

Could climate change move the needle on GM technology?

New genomic techniques have the potential to dramatically reduce pesticide and fertiliser use in agriculture whilst increasing food security, according to the signatories.

A failure to unlock the potential of NGTs would also risk a major economic opportunity cost, they said and ‘could cost the European economy 300 billion euros​ annually in “benefits forgone” across multiple sectors.’

Conventional breeding for climate resilient crops (with cross-breeding of certain traits, subsequent selection and then backcrossing to remove undesirable traits) is too time-consuming, warned the letter. “It takes years, decades even. We do not have this time in an era of climate emergency.” 

The signatories pointed to the many plants which, due to their specific genetic characteristics, are very difficult to breed by conventional means, such as fruit trees, grape vines or potatoes.

These crops require the most “harmful pesticides” used in the European Union to protect against pests and diseases.

NGTs can “dramatically improve this situation”, they wrote. “NGTs help to make crop plants resilient to disease by precise and targeted edits to their genetic code thus making our ambitious and vital goals of pesticide reduction possible while still protecting farmers’ yields… fast, targeted and favorable breeding methods need to be added to the plant breeder’s toolbox.”

The signatories added that European Parliament support for NGTs will not only foster innovation but also position the EU as a leader in responsible and evidence-based policymaking around the world. “Leaders in Africa for example are watching closely what you decide, as are African scientists who have NGT climate resilient cassava, banana, maize and other staple crops ready to go.”

Dr Hidde Boersma, the Dutch microbiologist who coordinated the letter, said: “The NGTs vote is a huge moment for the European Parliament. Will they embrace rationality and optimism, or cave into the anti-science fearmongering of an ill-informed minority? Now, more than ever, it’s time to embrace the optimism that Europe’s young scientists and farmers represent.”

Could CRISPR-Cas9 be game-changer for crops​?

The news also came as Israeli agri-tech company GeneNeer announced it has successfully closed a US$1 million seed round to support the acceleration of its technology for rapid crop seed innovation. The start-up has developed its own IP-proteced gene editing technology. It said it is now positioned to “democratise crop seed innovation, fostering more rapid, localised solutions to impacts of climate change, and to accelerate the development of healthier, more functional natural food sources.”

The funding round was led by Tall Grass Ventures, an early-stage Agrifood Tech venture firm based in Canada, and 2b AHEAD Ventures, a repeat investor from Germany. While the company’s first focus is on the potato market, further development in other key crops is being actively pursued through strategic partnerships.

Chris Edwards, Managing Partner at Tall Grass Ventures, said “We believe GeneNeer is at the forefront of gene-editing in crop development through their novel and proprietary Superline technology. With this technology, they have developed a multi-faceted platform, which we believe mitigates many of the business risks inherent in biotechnology and deep science-based startups. This approach not only enhances stability, but also aligns with the nimbleness and adaptability required to lead an emerging field.”

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