"I am surprised and disappointed" – Leen Laenens, chairman of Velt (Association for Ecological Life and Gardening)
Below is a Google translation (slightly edited for clarity) of an article that appeared today in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen.
The organisation that conducted the secret test with genome edited (GM) maize, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), has been lobbying for years for less or no regulation for genome editing techniques.
For the threats posed by so-called genome editing techniques, see this statement from concerned scientists.
Secret test with DNA-hacked maize in Flanders: "I am surprised and disappointed"
Jeroen Van Horenbeek en Barbara Debusschere
De Morgen, 23 July 2018
* On Wednesday, Europe must make a statement about GMO legislation
The Flemish Institute for Biotechnology has been secretly conducting a field trial with genetically modified maize for a year and a half. The plants have been changed via a sensational new technique that does not yet have clear European legislation. Nevertheless, the federal government agreed with it. This was revealed by De Morgen's research.
The new technique is the CRISPR/Cas9 method. This is regarded as a breakthrough in biology: a molecular "craft set" that researchers can cut and paste cheaply, easily and at will into the DNA of plants, animals and human embryos.
The enormous potential of this "DNA hacking" is also the great danger, according to a number of scientists. The method offers the potential to effectively combat many hereditary diseases and also AIDS, malaria and cancer, but you can also develop that never existed before or eradicate entire populations.
In laboratories worldwide, experiments with the CRISPR/Cas9 method are currently taking place. But confidential documents collected by De Morgen show that researchers from the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) have already taken a step further. Since last year they have planted a field with maize plants that have been changed with the new technology.
VIB spokesman René Custers confirms the existence of the field trial. He emphasizes that this is fundamental research. "The DNA of the maize has undergone a minor change in such a way that the impact of environmental stress such as extreme weather conditions or environmental pollution on the genetic material of the plant can be investigated," he says. "With the knowledge we gain, we hope to find ways to better arm plants against those circumstances."
Custers does not want to disclose the location of the field trial. Previous experiments conducted by the VIB, with GM potatoes and poplars, took place in Wetteren. Field Liberation campaigners stormed a potato field there in 2011. Tests with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are therefore sensitive. But that is not the only reason why the maize field trial has been kept secret for so long: there is currently no clear European legislation on CRISPR/Cas9.
In Europe, since 2012, there has been a discussion about whether new genetic techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 should be regarded as genetic modification or not. Biotech companies do not think so, because no "foreign" DNA is added and only existing genes are modified. The environmental movement does not agree with this. The EU keeps deliberating. The European Commission called for restraint in the Member States in 2015, but at the same time never did anything to ban research.
In 2016, the VIB researchers became tired of waiting for clarity and then turned to the federal government. Environment minister Marie Christine Marghem (MR) agreed to a field trial. Based on an analysis of the Belgian legislation on GMOs by her administration, Marghem decided that the CRISPR/Cas9 method would not be covered.
This decision made it possible that the field trial could be carried out in complete secrecy, without a time-consuming GMO permit procedure and different types of associated risk analyses.
Asked for a reaction, the Marghem Cabinet could not provide any comment yesterday.
"I am surprised and disappointed," says Leen Laenens, chairman of Velt (Association for Ecological Life and Gardening). "At the start of this month, we sent a letter from Voedsel Anders [Food Otherwise] – which Velt is a part of – to the federal government asking it to apply the precautionary principle. Which means being careful with the new gene techniques. And then you suddenly hear this. It's incomprehensible. As long as there is no clarity, certainly you must not allow such a field test."
That clarity might be coming soon. On Wednesday, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg must settle the discussion on the new genetic techniques. "The question is whether such a plant is a GMO and in order to obtain certainty about it, we applied to the Belgian government. They confirmed to us that our maize plants do not fall under the provisions of Belgian GMO legislation," says Custers. "Of course it is exciting now because the European Court's ruling can change that. We wait. Hopefully there will now be clarity. We have been urging Europe for a few years now."
In the meantime it appears that the CRISPR/Cas9 method is less predictable than expected. Last week, the leading journal Nature published a study that shows that the technique "causes many profound mutations and DNA damage". Something that earlier research also suggested. "We have underestimated this," says Patrick Hsu (Salk Institute) in Nature.
Professor of botany Michel Haring (University of Amsterdam) advocates transparency: "There are always unexpected and other effects that differ for every plant. You have to check that very well indeed – and we can now do that. But anyone who is enthusiastic about this because it offers a lot of possibilities cannot fail to admit that it is a GMO procedure. The only honest approach is to make that clear to the public."