Horizon Europe to Fund Research on Genome Editing in Agriculture

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Its French co-inventor, Emmanuelle Charpentier won a Nobel prize last year. Now the European Commission says the EU should look to the ‘major advances’ CRISPR gene editing provides to boost yields and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture

Horizon Europe is to allocate €5 million for projects aimed at understanding the benefits and risks of genome editing technologies in agriculture over the next two years, according to a leaked draft work programme.

The move is in support of the ‘Farm to Fork’ plan to reduce the use of fertilisers by 30 per cent and turn 25 per cent of agricultural land over to organic farming. To reach these objectives, the Commission says the EU needs to “enable major advances in the life sciences and biotechnology, in new genomic techniques, such as gene/genome editing.”

Plans for the €5 million call come after EU agriculture ministers called on the Commission last October to enable the use of “new innovative ingredients and techniques” to boost sustainable food production, once they are shown to be safe for humans, animals and the environment. The headline figure for the call is only indicative, and the Commission could fund proposals that go beyond this figure.

Also last October, French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and her collaboration partner Jennifer Doudna, were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.”

But as things stand, precision breeding of plants with gene editing technologies cannot be used in the EU, following a 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which founds genome editing is subject to the 2001 EU directive banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In an early post-Brexit move, the UK last month launched an industry consultation on gene editing, as it seeks to move away from EU regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Depending on the outcome, there will be a second consultation on changing the definition of a GMO. The UK government view is that organisms produced by gene editing or by other genetic technologies, should not be regulated as GMOs if they could have been produced by traditional breeding methods.

The proposed €5 million for genome editing research is a small part of a total of  €1.83 billion that is to be spent in 2021 and 2022 on Horizon Europe’s sixth cluster on food, bioeconomy natural resources, agriculture and environment, the draft work programme from December 2020 has revealed.

The European Commission is expected to publish the official work programmes with final funding figures and deadlines for application by the end of April. However, many research stakeholders have had access to draft versions of the documents posted online. Science|Business has published a trove of such documents, which offer researchers a detailed insight of how the €95.5 billion funding programme will be organised.

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