Experts say the decision could "slam the door shut on this revolutionary technology."
EXTENDING THE GMO UMBRELLA. On Wednesday, Europe's highest court ruled that any crops edited using CRISPR or other gene-editing techniques must abide by the same laws restricting the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
As Kai Purnhagen, a Dutch legal scholar specializing in European and international law, told Nature, “It is an important judgment, and it’s a very rigid judgment. It means for all the new inventions such as CRISPR–Cas9 food, you would need to go through the lengthy approval process of the European Union.”
WHAT'S THE DIFF? Though similar in name, the process used to create GMOs and gene-editing crops is different.
Genetically modifying an organism involves swapping out a bit of its genetic material for a bit of a different organism's material — for example, tweaking the genome of corn to include genetic material from pesticide-resistant bacteria. The final product could never appear naturally in the wild.
With gene-editing, researchers add, delete, or modify bits of an organism's genome — for example, deleting parts of a mushroom's genome to prevent it from browning as quickly. This could conceivablely happen in the wild through natural mutations.
DIVIDED RESPONSE. A number of gene-editing experts have already criticized the ruling for its potential to stymie important research. "The classification of genome-edited organisms as falling under the GMO Directive could slam the door shut on this revolutionary technology," said Johnathan Napier, a professor at U.K. crop science institute Rothamsted Research, in a statement. "This is a backward step, not progress."
Meanwhile, those in favor of it claim the ruling will protect consumers from potentially unsafe crops. “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side effects,” Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director, said in a press statement. “The European commission and European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labelled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”
THE SITUATION STATESIDE. This decision conflicts with the U.S. government's current stance on gene-edited crops. In April, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a statement confirming that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would not subject gene-edited crops to the same regulations as genetically-modified ones.
Of course, since then, research has shown that CRISPR might not be as safe or reliable as scientists previously thought. That new information, combined with the European court's ruling, could push U.S. regulators to rethink their position on gene-editing in the near future.
READ MORE: Top EU Court: GMO Rules Cover Plant Gene Editing Technique [Reuters]
More on gene-editing regulation: USDA Announces Super-Chill Stance on Gene-Edited Crops