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Are GMOs the solution to sustainable food?

The food industry plays a key role in feeding the global population, but as the number of people is continuously growing and changing, the industry needs to rapidly evolve to meet the increasing demand for high-quality, nutritious and safe food while contributing to a sustainable agri-food system. In this context, are GMOs an asset or a risk for the industry? While some see GMOs as a potential solution, others have expressed their concerns about their potential risks on human health and environment. Regulators are addressing these concerns in a proposal for a new legislation with the aim to better regulate the use and production of GMOs in the food industry.

EU GMOs regulatory framework

The food industry in the European Union operates within a legal framework that sets out stringent requirements for the production and distribution of food and feed products before they are placed on the European market. These regulatory requirements protect human and animal health as well as the environment and apply a “precautionary principle”. Consumer associations and NGO’s voiced that many European consumers have concerns about the potential risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the public health and the environment. Therefore, the EU has imposed a thorough authorization procedure setting the basis for the European Commission’s decision on the use of GMOs. The EU legal framework on GMOs includes a wide range of regulations and directives (Table 1), governing their use, patenting, release in the environment and many other areas. According to Directive 2001/18/EC, a genetically modified organism is defined as:

“(…) an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.

The scope of this definition covers the processes used to create a GMO rather than the end product. Specifically, the Directive lists the techniques that are considered to result in a GMO product. The United States, instead, has based its GMO legislation on the product itself, focusing on the novel genetic characteristics of the product.

The EU’s authorization process of GMOs involves two essential steps. The decision is based on the scientific advice of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who conducts a scientific assessment of the potential risks and benefits of food and feed products containing GMOs. EFSA’s findings are then published online, and a public consultation is convened. These two steps allow for a close examination of the potential impact of GMOs on human and animal health and the environment. Furthermore, this process takes into consideration public perception on the matter. The final decision is then issued by the European Commission after consultation with the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed.

With genome engineering techniques, we can intentionally introduce genetic modification to improve crop varieties by selecting desirable traits, such as resistance to pests and diseases or higher yields. In the past, these same traits could also occur spontaneously through genetic variations and/or they were selected through conventional breeding techniques.  

However, conventional breeding can take up a lot of time and make it difficult to create target-specific genetic alterations. When genetic engineering was introduced in the 90s, it revolutionized the technology landscape for plant breeding in several ways and resulted in clear benefits compared to conventional breeding techniques :

  • More accurate outcomes through the introduction of specific genes that insert desirable traits into crops through direct and target-specific manipulation of the DNA.
  • Faster results as there is no selective breeding and screening over many generations.
  • Creating new crops which are unlikely to generate through conventional breeding.

Genetic engineering transformed the way we manipulate organisms’ genetic material, however, clarification is needed whether plants containing modified genetic material are subject to EU GMOs regulations and directives.

While EU legislation on GMOs was adopted in 2001, the first genome targeting techniques were already introduced in 1994. It might seem logical to assume that all organisms developed through genetic engineering techniques would fall under the EU legislation on GMOs, the EU regulator has taken a different approach.

New techniques introduced after Directive 2001/18/EC implementation are defined as “Novel Genomic Techniques” (NGTs) and they are currently subject to EU GMO legislation. Some techniques predating the directive, the Established Genome Techniques (EGTs), were included based on an assessment. The full outcome of this assessment is mentioned in Annex 1A part 1 and 2 of  Directive 2001/18/EC.

NGTs include different techniques which can be used in a variety of ways to obtain different results and products. For this reason, NGTs safety will be dependent on the technique, its use and the characteristics of the final products.  For certain NGTs, EFSA has concluded that no new hazard(s) were identified when compared to conventional breeding and EGTs. Furthermore,  while it is now easy to identify a mutation, the origin of a given modification (obtained via NGTs or via spontaneous mutation) might not be identified through currently available detection methods. This demonstrates that the current regulatory framework lacks a risk-based approach when determining which techniques should fall under the GMOs Directive and traceability criteria will need to be revised. As a response, the commission has prepared a proposal for the amendment of Regulation (EU) 2017/625.

NGTs have the potential to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems and leave a positive impact on the environment contributing to the objectives of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies. However, stakeholders have contrasting views on these techniques and products developed through them. Hence, a common ground to address and solve their concerns still needs to be found.

The United States (US) widely uses GMOs for feed and food production. Genetic engineering has been applied to most major crops grown in the US such as corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton, among others. Moreover, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several genetically modified crops for animal (e.g. canola, soybean, and corn) and human consumption (e.g. potatoes, apples, and papayas).

The three federal agencies that are responsible for the regulation of GMOs in the US include the U.S. Food and Drug administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These agencies monitor the human safety and environmental impact of GMOs and require developers and processors of genetically modified crops to submit extensive data on their safety and efficacy before they can be approved for commercial use.

While the use of GMOs is widespread in the US, there has been ongoing debate and controversy over their safety and potential long-term effects on human health and the environment. Many NGOs have called for stricter regulation on GMOs or even a ban on their use, while researchers argue that they can bring benefits and advantages to the industry. To address and monitor concerns, independent research is ongoing to study their effects on public health and the environment. This debate is likely to continue in the US and around the world, as new developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering continue to emerge.


Overall, the use and consumption of GMOs remains a worldwide controversial topic. In the European Union, the food industry operates within a strict legal framework that prioritizes the protection of human and animal health and the environment, in line with the “precautionary principle”.  Therefore, the authorization procedure involves the scientific assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and a public consultation.

The advent of NGTs, enabling target-specific and more efficient genetic modifications has shown their potential to contribute to a more resilient and sustainable agri-food system by, for example, increasing crop yields, reducing the use of harmful pesticides and improving the nutritional value of food. Additionally, EFSA has assessed and demonstrated that these techniques show less risks than the Established Genome Techniques (EGTs) and conventional breeding methods.The main concerns raised by the European public relate to the potential impact on biodiversity, their coexistence with organic and GMO-free agriculture, the lack of transparency and visibility of GMO containing products. In order for GMO to become a solution for a more sustainable future, the regulators will have to fill these gaps and provide clear guidance to the industry and the consumers.A new proposal on EU GMOs regulation was published on the 5th of July 2023 with the aim to open to the use of plants obtained with specific type of NGTs (targeted mutagenesis and cisgenesis, including intragenesis) to support EU climate and environmental goals, enhance the Union competitiveness in the agri-food sector, while continuing to protect human and animal health and the environment.

It remains to be seen if this proposed amendment of Regulation (EU) 2017/625 will succeed in including GMOs into our European diets as it only focusses on a very limited amount of techniques. Furthermore, a campaign to change consumer perception will be needed to widely accept GMOs in Europe.

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