Europe’s summer of drought has been impossible to ignore. Rivers dried up, exposing the skeletons of warships and ancient buildings. Images captured by satellite show swathes of the continent’s normally verdant fields turned to parched dust bowls.
The hot, dry conditions have also wreaked havoc on Europe’s agriculture. Most of the continent’s water-starved fields will produce lower than expected yields this summer. For some crops, the difference is stark: Soybean yields are 15 percent below their five-year average while sunflower yields are 12 percent down. With agricultural supply chains already stretched because of the war in Ukraine, the vulnerabilities in Europe’s food system are looking extremely exposed.
In response, some European politicians are starting to rethink the European Union’s long-standing opposition to genetically modified and gene-edited crops. In July, an Italian member of the European Parliament called for a loosening of the rules that restrict crop varieties created using new gene-editing techniques like CRISPR from being grown and sold within the EU. “New agricultural biotechnology can provide experimentation for more drought- and pest-resistant plants,” member Antonio Tajani said in a meeting at the European Parliament. Other Italian politicians have joined him in calling for similar changes to gene-editing regulations.
In northern Italy, the drought is so severe that rice fields are drying up and farmers are facing much lower harvests than normal.
If European droughts are here to stay, farmers might need new crop varieties that can withstand long, dry summers. Until recently, scientists who wanted to create more drought-resistant crops would have two main options: conventional breeding or genetic modification. Genetically modified crops are made by inserting genetic material from another organism into the DNA of a plant—usually a gene that makes the crop resistant to insects or herbicides. The EU’s strict rules on GMOs mean that only two such crops have ever been approved there, and only one—a bug-resistant corn—is grown within EU borders. In the United States, by contrast, nearly 90 percent of soybean and corn fields are GMO. Gene editing is a separate and more recent technique, and involves directly editing the genome of an organism rather than inserting genes from a different species. It was expected to avoid GMO regulations, but in 2018 the European Court of Justice ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same regulations as GMOs.
Now, there are signs that the EU’s position might be about to change. The European Commission is responsible for creating new legislation in the EU, and in April 2021 published a study outlining its desire to loosen regulations on gene-edited crops. “The commission realized that the European Court of Justice decision was not science-based. It was legally based but it wasn’t science-based,” says Cathie Martin, a professor of plant science at the John Innes Centre in the U.K. The European Commission’s study concluded that the EU’s existing GMO rules aren’t suitable for regulating crops made using gene editing. It also said that gene-edited crops could help the EU meet its goals for sustainability and food security.
A change in policy could also have an impact on the EU’s agricultural emissions. Agriculture is responsible for around 10 percent of the EU’s emissions, but one study from the U.S.-based think tank the Breakthrough Institute found that the EU’s adoption of GMO crops such as those grown in the U.S. could lead to a reduction in emissions equivalent to 7.5 percent of the total agricultural emissions of Europe. This mainly comes from the fact that GMO crops tend to have higher yields than conventional varieties. Most of those emissions reductions would come from land outside the EU that didn’t need to be converted to agriculture, explains Emma Kovak, lead author of the study. “Because crop yields in the EU are higher than the global average, further increasing crop yields in the EU allows production expansion elsewhere in the world to slow,” she explains.
There are some big caveats, however. First, 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 U.S. Second, 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 U.S., a CRISPR-edited mushroom was the first gene-edited food to be approved for sale. In the U.K., 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 fungus, 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.