New genetic engineering techniques could slip through the regulatory safety net
The European Commission is poised to issue a crucial decision on whether or not plants created with a range of new genetic engineering techniques should be classified as genetically modified (GM). Due in March, the ruling could mean the difference between regulation or a completely free rein on a set of techniques that carry most of the same problems as existing GM as well as new ones of their own.
Collectively known as the ‘New Plant Breeding Techniques’ (NBTs) the methods in question include gene editing techniques like oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis, zinc finger nucleases and CRISPR; cisgenesis (inserting genes from the same species); epigenetic techniques (switching genes on, off, or changing the way they are expressed) and methods that combine current GM techniques with other procedures such as grafting.
Proponents claim they are more precise than current GM methods and that they shouldn’t “count” as GM because they don’t usually add in genes from other species. However, they do involve changing DNA in the lab and are all vulnerable to off-target and unintended effects which could present risks to people, animals and the wider environment. They have no history of safe use and, because genetic pollution is almost impossible to “mop up”, any problems they do cause will be incredibly difficult to put right.
We hear a lot about the precision of the new methods, but they are all vulnerable to off-target effects of one kind or another and precision isn’t the same as predictability. We know that genes interact with each other in complex ways. Changing the way that one gene is expressed can have an effect on a completely different part of the genome so even if one is successful in altering DNA in exactly the way intended, unexpected effects can still occur.
Environmental charities, campaigners, organic farming representatives and othershave been working hard to make the case for regulation, with Brussels briefings and a range of reports, position statements and media articles. But they face a strong and well-resourced opposition. As reported by Corporate Europe Observatory, the biotech industry-funded New Breeding Techniques Platform is working to have “all NBTs – or as many as possible – exempt from GM legislation”.
Mainstream media coverage focuses heavily on the potential for genetic engineering to create positive results but this isn’t a debate about banning anything, it’s about regulation. If this group of genetic engineering techniques escape classification as GM the crops they produce could find their way into our fields and onto our plates without environmental or food safety risk assessments. They would not be traceable and, without labelling, consumers would have no way to identify and avoid them should they wish to do so.
A common refrain in discussions about the status of these techniques, and about GM issues more generally, is that decisions should be made on the basis of science alone. However, as GM Freeze argued in recent evidence to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, people have a wide range of ethical concerns about genetic engineering. For example, the NBTs and the products they create are all subject to patents, handing yet more control of food production from farmers to big business.
GM Freeze is asking people to write to the European Commission to let them know that European citizens are concerned and want to see all forms of genetic engineering properly regulated. MEPs have no formal say in this decision but are expected to vote on related issues over the next couple of months.
Liz O’Neill, Director, GM Freeze