Scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge have been busy engineering a tomato resistant to a pernicious fungal disease. Using the gene-editing technique Crispr/Cas9, they have made a tomato resistant to powdery mildew, a serious agricultural problem that takes a lot of chemicals to control.
What makes this new technique interesting is that the new crops obtained are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in that they do not contain genes from other species, rather they induce mutations in the plant genome in the same way of the old chemical or radiation based techniques. Indeed, the new varieties are indistinguishable from the ones obtained with old methods and they are easier and cheaper to obtain.
To take the work further, it will be necessary to take the mutated tomato, which resembles a naturally grown tomato, to field trials, which is where the difficulties begin. Whilst US guidelines have already allowed the the approval of many genetically modified organisms, current European regulations make this modified tomato essentially illegal.
The discussion at policy level today is about how to regulate this new varieties: should they be treated as the GMOs or as the traditional varieties? In the EU policymakers have not yet decided and any future decision, as well as delays in the decisions, are expected to have strong implications for the whole agricultural supply chain (from farmers to consumers, including agri-business and international trade) and for the work of scientists and breeders.
Wired USA published an article on this new technology and the problem faced by scientists because of the difficulty of EU regulations, for which they interviewed CCRI’s Mauro Vigani.
Mauro told Wired:
“They haven’t figured it out yet, and it’s mainly a political issue. Everything depends on how you define gene editing. At the end of the day, there’s no regulation of new plant breeding techniques either on gene editing or cis- or intragenetics, and that means that no new crops obtained with this methodology are authorized.”