The European Union says it wants to ensure safe and affordable nourishment for all its citizens, but a pair of food policy experts say a plan to do that may have unintended, and unhealthy, consequences.

The EU’s “Farm-to-Fork” strategy may cause regulations over gene-edited food to be relaxed, they write in Green European Journal. A survey this year found that more than a quarter of Europeans are concerned about genetically modified ingredients in their food, and the authors call the edited ingredients “a failure.”

The EU is putting together a proposed long-term strategy that is expected to cover every step in the food chain from production to consumption, though legislators have released few details. Finnish Agriculture Minister Jari Leppä said last week he hoped that the new strategy will allow new gene-editing techniques because plant breeding is “the first link in the food chain.”

“Early political warnings suggest that the EU might reopen established rules on genetically modified food, which would put new techniques at risk of being deregulated,” food experts Francesco Ajena and Juliette Leroux wrote. 

“The safety net which legislators have woven around the GMO issue in 2000 is based on solid scientific evidence; no reasons of political economy should be allowed to undermine solid scientific evaluation,” their essay continued.

Any move by the EU to relax its restrictive policies on GMOs would likely boost the already surging sector. The global market was estimated to grow from $20.1 billion last year to $30.2 billion by the end of 2026, with North America being the largest market and the Asia-Pacific region the fastest growing.

Genetic modifications in food have caught the attention of private equity and venture capital investors seeking opportunities in life sciences. PE has invested at least $36.4 billion this year in companies working in the field, more than double the $16.8 billion invested in all of 2018, according to PitchBook. VC has invested at least $20.2 billion across 1,180 deals this year, compared to $30.3 billion last year.

  • In July, 2018, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that gene-edited crops, created by such new technologies as CRISPR-Cas9, should be subject to the same directive that imposes high hurdles for the planting and sale of genetically-modified crops. Plant breeders and scientists contend that gene-editing techniques should be considered mutagenesis, just like irradiation, and thus be exempt from the directive, because they can involve changes to DNA and not the insertion of foreign genes. 
  • Scientists at Manila’s International Rice Research Institute used CRISPR/Cas9 to successfully edit the genome of strains of rice grown in Southeast Asia and West Africa to block a pathogen that ravages yields of the staple crop. The team found that rice plants with engineered genes were resistant to at least 95 strains of a type of bacterial blight.

In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it doesn’t intend to regulate edited crops with mutations that could have occurred in nature. Brazil, Argentina and Australia have taken a similar tack.