Reveal of a detection method for a gene-edited rapeseed – What is the significance and why is there a controversy?

A regulation is only worth so much as it can be enforced. This is why on 7 September, an open source detection test was announced for the first gene-edited crop on the market, SU Canola, developed by US company Cibus. The test was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Foods. The work was funded by a consortium of NGOs (including Greenpeace) and non-GM industry food companies.

SU Canola is a rapeseed engineered with oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), a gene editing technique, to withstand spraying with certain herbicides. Products of gene editing fall within the scope of EU GMO law, according to a European Court of Justice ruling of 2018. Gene-editing, refers to a technique that allows to add, delete or change single base-pairs in the genetic code of plants and animals.

If applied, the test would allow national authorities (tasked with the enforcement of EU GMO law) to test imports for this GM rapeseed that is grown in the US and Canada and has no EU authorization. This would be a big step forward in ensuring that organic as well as non-organic products do not contain any products that should not be in there. The reveal came as a surprise to some, since some developers claimed that gene-edited crops could not be detected in the marketplace and therefore couldn’t be regulated under existing EU law.

The controversies: Nothing new & not even detecting a GM-organism? The test stirred up some controversy because of two aspects. First, some seed sector representatives that advocate for the producer of the rapeseed, Cibus, claimed the test does not contribute anything new to the current state of knowledge because it cannot detect the technique with which the crop was engineered. This statement is misleading, as the detection method is the first of its kind that allows national authorities to detect a crop in which genetic engineering was applied to make small changes that have big impacts. In this case, one base-pair was changed to achieve resistance against a spraying with certain herbicides. It is correct that this test was not designed to detect the specific technique that has been used. However, it can detect the crop itself and therefore fulfills the requirements of a detection test, as confirmed by Austrian detection laboratories.

Secondly, the developer company Cibus claimed that the rapeseed was not gene-edited, unlike previously claimed. This came as a surprise, since the crop was listed as a GMO in the EU GMO database run by German regulator BVL and Wageningen University, and in the Clearinghouse of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.  So, while the rapeseed was advertised as the first commercial seed product using a gene-edited tool, it is now claimed to be a spontaneous mutation that occurred randomly.

In conclusion: Detecting gene-edited crops is possible & EU GMO law is enforceable for new techniques of genetic modification. Apart from the fact that these controversies shine a new light on the claims of the developer company Cibus, what can we conclude? The revealed detection method has shown that it is possible to detect gene-edited crops in principle and that the current EU GMO law can be enforced also for products from these new types of genetic engineering. This allows the EU to make sure that no unauthorized foods are entering the EU market and to protect our high standards on food safety. Even if the rapeseed is actually a random by-product of the genetic engineering process that was not intended, this conclusion still applies.

The organic movement and sector will continue providing constructive input in the debate around New Genomic Techniques on which the EU Commission will present a study in April 2021.

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