GeneSprout Initiative is led by early-career plant scientists. We aim to be a voice of early-career plant scientists in the policy-making around New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) in Europe. Additionally, we are deeply committed to increasing public engagement and awareness about NGTs and their significance in agriculture
- To voice the opinions of plant science students and early-career plant scientists in the policy-making of NGTs
- To engage in open dialogues with the general public about NGTs
- To develop comprehensible and freely accessible information platforms
At the end of 2018, several young plant scientists started the GeneSprout Initiative to engage with both the general public and politicians on the scientific foundations of New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). Read below what started our initiative and why we deeply believe that we need to have an open dialogue on the use of NGTs.
The ruling that compelled us to act
In the summer of 2018, on July 25th, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) reviewed case C-528/16 and concluded that organisms obtained by mutagenesis techniques should be regulated under the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) directive (2001/18/EC). In addition, the ECJ ruled that plants obtained by New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) are – in contrast to long-used, but much less precise mutagenesis techniques – not excluded from the GMOs directive. Like most of the scientific community, we assumed that this ruling meant that all NGT-bred plants would be classified and subjected to the EU laws for GMOs. Since these laws are very strict, our interpretation of the ECJ ruling has been and still is hindering European agricultural innovation. As young researchers and citizens, we believe that NGTs – with CRISPR at the forefront – can contribute to meeting the challenges we face today and tomorrow and, therefore, our voices need to be heard. That is why, at the end of 2018, we were compelled to come together and start the GeneSprout Initiative – an initiative by and for young EU researchers.
Are all NGT-bred plants GMOs?
Although the ECJ ruling focused on which genetic techniques can yield GMOs – and concluded that this is the case for NGTs – a plant can only be considered a GMO if it falls under the EU definition of a GMO in the first place. The GMO definition states that not only a genetic technique must have been used, but that the organism’s genetic material must have been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Bearing this in mind, it becomes obvious that a NGT-bred plant with a single-letter DNA change – something that occurs frequently in nature – does not fall under the GMO definition. On the other hand, using a NGT to add a gene from another species – something that is much less likely to occur naturally – results in a GMO (although recently it has become clear that this horizontal gene transfer occurs in nature more often than we were aware off). These two examples illustrate both extremes of a broad spectrum of DNA alterations that can be achieved using NGTs. What is still unclear, is what kind of DNA alterations, which fall somewhere along this spectrum, do not occur naturally and therefore yield a GMO. Clarification is urgently needed.
Open dialogue is necessary
The ECJ ruling triggered a polarized debate between strong voices either in favor of or opposed to NGTs, and CRISPR in particular. As scientists, and even more so as citizens, this ongoing debate on agricultural innovation has us deeply concerned. We fear that this debate, together with the current regulatory uncertainty around NGTs, limits the potential benefits NGTs can provide for our society and the environment. Many early-career plant researchers in Europe are passionate about developing more climate resilient and nutritious plant varieties, and NGTs hold enormous potential to help us accomplish that. Given the current ecological and societal challenges we face, such innovation is urgently needed.
Our society deserves to be engaged in a dialogue that is open-minded and constructive when it comes to the use and regulation of NGTs. We believe that in order to do so, we need to provide scientists, policy makers, and the general public alike with correct information on NGTs. On top of that, we want to introduce them to the fascinating world of plant sciences in general. That is how people can develop truly informed opinions and how we can inspire them to become part of the conversation. In order to increase public awareness and engagement, we initiated a platform that facilitates exactly that – the GeneSprout Initiative.
The brain drain of Europe and the silent voice of young researchers
Europe has always been on the forefront of agricultural advances, thanks to our fellow plant scientists pushing forward the boundaries of plant science and biotechnology. The use of CRISPR as a NGT heralded a new age of plant breeding. Never before have we had access to a technique that allows us to breed new plant varieties with such precision and efficiency. Not surprisingly, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and universities alike started R&D projects using CRISPR to push us into the new age of plant breeding.
The legal uncertainty and interpretation of the ECJ ruling has unfortunately slowed down scientific innovation in the EU. SMEs started moving their R&D to countries that did adopt fit-for-purpose regulations. Research projects at universities and research centres were cancelled or could not obtain funding anymore. As a result, the current and future generations of plant scientists have been deprived of many opportunities, leaving them demotivated and leading to a brain drain of talent. In the long run, this will cost Europe its leading role in plant biotechnology and agricultural innovation.
So far, the discussion on the use of NGTs in the EU has involved major stakeholders: politicians, breeding and biotech companies, and non-governmental organizations. These conversations often include seasoned researchers and politicians. We felt an important voice was missing: the voice of the younger generation. The opinions of students, PhDs and postdoctoral researchers were not being considered, even though it’s a discussion that concerns the future generations of plant scientists the most. And so, we decided to create a platform to voice opinions of our generation on this topic – the GeneSprout Initiative.
The GeneSprout Initiative is committed to increasing public awareness and engagement on NGTs and the potential they hold to help better agriculture. We present a platform for young plant researchers that encourages them to participate in science communication and that facilitates open dialogue with experts from different fields, policy makers, and citizens. We want to enable both early-career plant scientists and citizens to find their voice. Together, we hope to gather new and joint perspectives on NGTs that will help us shape the future of agriculture