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Gene Editing Causing Challenges for EU Policymakers by Mickael Marsali

After a quarter century of conflict over genetically modified foods, it’s understandable that initial reactions to gene editing—the technical process of editing or removing specific genes of an organism—being applied to produce and livestock have been met with polarized responses.

Both processes involve altering the natural genetic makeup of an organism, but gene-editing is actually a much more precise, and safe, method that is fundamentally different than the processes that go into making the GMO’s we have come to know today.

To create a traditional GMO, one actually adds a gene from one organism to another. Gene editing works more like a find-and-replace function on a word processor. It precisely locates a particular gene and then either amends or deletes in. Absent is the addition of foreign genetic information from different species.

Because of this distinction, supporters of the technology argue this method of genetic manipulation is more similar to conventional selective breeding—a practice which is freely allowed in the EU.

While genetic editing has proven to be among the safest practices of genetic manipulation, many European lawmakers are still mum on what they would like to do in regards to the labeling of these products. The largest debate is between biotech companies and environmentalists.

Greenpeace argues that the EU’s GMO law should be applied to “new breeding techniques” (NBT) like gene editing. They are concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts should the produces arrive on the market without any risk assessment, labelling, or detection methods.

Biotechnology companies, meanwhile, claim their gene-edited products are fundamentally different from GMO’s since they do not contain foreign DNA from a different species.

So far, no decision has been made. In fact, the EU has missed multiple deadlines on making a decision, one by end of 2015 and one by end of March 2016.

In recent months, genetically edited mushrooms have already hit the market in the United States. Trade will inevitably prompt Europe to make a final decision on the matter.

Critics are beginning to predict that if the European government does not make a decision quick, they will fall behind the rest of the world.