April 29, 2021

Researchers have asked the European Union to consider allowing gene editing to fall within its definition of organic farming, as they say doing so could lead to environmental benefits.

The calls from researchers at universities in Europe and the United States come as the EU aims to substantially increase the amount of organic food grown in the 27-member bloc.

As reported recently, the European Commission has released an action plan to help increase the proportion of agricultural land in the EU that is farmed organically to one quarter.

In a paper published in the Trends in Plant Sciences journal, the researchers argue that not allowing gene editing to come under the organic banner could result in agricultural systems that are less sustainable.

They say that, because growing crops without conventional pesticides typically results in lower yields, a greater area will need to be set aside for agriculture if there is an increase in the amount of land farmed organically.

“This could easily result in environmental costs that exceed any local environmental benefits in the EU, as the conversion of natural land into agricultural land is one of the biggest drivers of global climate change and biodiversity loss,” Matin Qaim, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Göttingen, in Germany, and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

In their paper, Europe’s Farm to Fork Strategy and Its Commitment to Biotechnology and Organic Farming: Conflicting or Complementary Goals, the researchers warn of “unintended land-use implications” of the organic target.

“Effects could range from a mere conversion of existing conventional farmland to organic without much yield loss in certain regions to larger yield losses, entailing the need for additional conversion of forests, swamps, or other natural habitats within the EU or elsewhere through rising food imports,” they wrote.

The researchers say that, even now, with only 7.5% of agricultural land in the EU farmed organically, the bloc imports large quantities of products that are often linked to deforestation, such as palm oil and soybeans.

About five million tonnes of soybeans are imported each year from Brazil, for example, with some having been grown on land where forests were illegally destroyed.

The researchers say that gene-edited crops offer better yields and so the use of the technology could help to cancel out the reductions in yield caused by moving to organic production.

“Gene editing offers unique opportunities to make food production more sustainable and to further improve the quality, but also the safety, of food,” another author, Stephan Clemens, a Professor of Plant Physiology at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany, said in a statement.

The authors also say that gene editing could help to eliminate some aspects of organic farming that they argue are potentially environmentally harmful.

They cited the example of using gene editing to develop fungus-resistant plants, which could eliminate the use of pesticides that contain copper, the use of which is allowed under organic regulations.

“Organic farming and gene editing could therefore complement each other very well and, combined, could contribute to more local and global sustainability,” Professor Qaim said.

The researchers say that allowing gene-edited plants to be counted as organic would require legislative changes, but added that a negative view of genetic engineering meant there was little appetite to change the rules.

In a statement, the study’s lead author, Kai Purnhagen, Professor of German & European Food Law at the University of Bayreuth, said that “improved communication” could result in “greater societal openness” towards gene editing.

This is because gene editing, unlike some other types of genetic engineering, “enables very targeted breeding without having to introduce foreign genes into the plants”.

“Highlighting this point could dispel many of the widespread fears of genetic engineering,” he said.

The European Commission, which released a 23-point action plan to increase the amount of land farmed organically, said using organic methods can increase biodiversity by up to 30%.

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