Gene-edited crop production could be set to become more widespread after a leading EU lawyer claimed the technique should be exempt from genetic modification organism (GMO) rules.

However, he added that, were the rules to change, individual EU Member States could still regulate against them, should they choose.

Organisms obtained by mutagenesis should not be seen as GM unless they contained nucleic acid molecules or other GM organisms inserted through laboratory methods, a preliminary opinion piece published last month by EU advocate general Michal Bobek has argued.

The advice, which isn’t legally binding, came ahead of an EU court ruling expected later this year. If this rules that gene-edited crops should be classified as GM, they would be subject to the same risk assessment, labelling and monitoring as GM crops.

GM crops

However, Bobek said he “did not see any grounds deriving from the general duty to update legislation (in this case enhanced by the precautionary principle), which could affect the validity of the mutagenesis exemption”.

But, environmental campaigners have voiced strong opposition to any exemption in GM rules.

Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said farmers and consumers across the EU expected any new approach to producing food and crops to be fully tested to make sure it was safe for the public and the environment.

“They will be counting on the European Court of Justice to not uphold​ [the] opinion, and instead make sure that all new GM foods and crops are properly regulated,” ​she added.

Corporate Europe Observatory’s agriculture campaigner Nina Holland said the safety of this new generation of GM crops remained “completely untested and must, therefore, not be exempted from existing safety rules”.

Gene editing

However, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader at The Francis Crick Institute claimed that if gene editing was used to make an alteration in the DNA of a plant or animal that could occur naturally or deliberately by mutagenesis, then it should be exempt from GMO regulations.

“One could argue that the precision of genome editing might be safer than the randomness of mutation (by chemicals or radiation), which has been the standard way to obtain genetic variation within a plant species, from which new varieties are then selected.”

Professor Huw Jones, chair in translational genomics for plant breeding at Aberystwyth University, said he was happy that this proposal excluded simple gene editing from GMO.

“However, allowing Member States to legislate independently will inevitably complicate innovation, commercialisation and trade in gene-edited products,”​ he cautioned.