Agriculture Minister opens door to genetic modification: report

Irrigation
Irrigation . Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Minister Carola Schouten of Agriculture wants to use a "light form" of genetic modification as part of her efforts to make agriculture in the Netherlands more sustainable. She is currently working with companies, farmers and Wageningen University to investigate the possibilities for experimenting with the so-called CRISPR-Cas method. She will send parliament a letter about their progress in the coming weeks, she said to the Volkskrant. 

In the CRISPR-Cas method, crops are improved by cutting weaknesses from their DNA. In classical breeding - crossing crops to remove weaknesses - it often takes years to have the desired effect. CRISPR-Cas compresses this process. In contrast to other forms of genetic modification, this method does not involve mixing with DNA from other species. 

Before becoming a Minister, Schouten was still convinced that everything should be organic. "Over the years I have come to realize that my view was far too limited", she said to the newspaper. "For CRISPR-Cas, I would like to have room for experimentation." There is little room for that now, because in July the European Court of Justice ruled that this method must also fall under the strict rules for genetic modification. "It is unfortunate that that door has been slammed in Europe."

Wageningen University and Research is positive that the Minister wants to experiment with CRISPR-Cas, despite the European ruling. "This is an important signal that the Minister is giving", Bert Lotz, plant researcher at the university, said to the newspaper. "Otherwise, we run the risk of staying in the Netherlands at the thought that we do not want this all together. While international and national research shows that it can be done carefully and that there are major sustainability successes involved. For example in the question: do you want to spray a potato 15 times a year, or a lot less through this technology?"

According to Rene Smulders, who works on plant breeding in Wageningen, scientifically there is no reason not to allow this technique. "It is an extension of our toolbox", he said to the newspaper. "Now it's like we are only allowed to work on a typewriter, while the computer has already been invented." Not using this technique won't mean everything collapses, but does put the Netherlands at a disadvantage, he said. 

Greenpeace, on the other hand, thinks it's good that the European Court put CRISPR-Cas under genetic modification. "Then a risk assessment is done", Herman Bekkem of the environmental organization said to the Volkskrant. "It is strange to not do that with this kind of new techniques, of which the side effects for nature and health are still unknown."

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