Genetic Food Technologies

Genetically modified or genetically edited?

The food industry is constantly evolving and perhaps the roadblock caused by public mistrust of GMO foods is what has led to the more nuanced technologies developing under the banner of gene editing. There is an important difference: GMO, or genetic modification of an organism, involves inserting new, foreign DNA, obtained from a different species, whereas gene editing involves introducing changes to an organism’s own DNA, in effect editing – a sort of controlled ‘tweak’ – that could have happened naturally anyway, over time.

This important distinction is what enables the more recent editing technologies to avoid the regulatory oversite applied to GMO’s, which is likely to be adopted here in the UK, aligning us with other major exporting countries: United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Japan.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill was introduced to Parliament on 25 May 2022. Currently, if the resulting genetic changes that result from gene editing, could have occurred naturally using traditional breeding methods, then the research scientists can bypass GMO legislature.  They will still need to notify Defra of their research trials and the commercial cultivation of the plants, and any food products derived from them, will still need to be authorised in accordance with existing GM rules.

Although the EU currently lags behind this view, their 2018 ruling stated that any organisms altered by gene-editing techniques would still be subject to the same regulations as GMOs, the EU Council have now asked for the 2018 regulations to be reviewed, saying these are no longer fit for purpose. In practice, bringing gene edited crops and livestock to the UK market is still years away, so the EU should have time to achieve consensus on a more pragmatic position based on the technological, commercial and regulatory situations currently being established around the world.

So what are the Pro’s and Con’s?

The environmental argument says if GE can make crops more resistant to pests, we’ll see less pesticides leaching into the soil and water courses. If GE can increase yields, we’ll have less need of fertilisers, which rely on fossil fuels, so carbon emissions should come down. If GE can make crops more resistant to disease and climate change, resulting foods will remain plentiful and cheaper. With Britain heavily reliant on imports and the war in Ukraine rumbling on, this argument is gaining power.

In terms of health, the proponents of GE see native DNA being adjusted to benefit nutrient values, or increase amino acids to support health initiatives.  Scientists are already looking at tomatoes that deliver vitamin D, and ones that will lower blood pressure, and even wheat with less gluten.

The Opposition argues that gene-edited organisms – just like GMOs – will still be prone to unintended ‘off-target’ effects.  They worry in terms of safety that new GE foods will arrive at market before sufficient lengthy research has been done. Currently, the number of herbicide-tolerant gene-edited-plant proposals being put forward, suggests that GE applications may simply further entrench farmer’s reliance on agro-chemicals. Certainly the earlier pesticide reduction claims of GMO proposals have proved mainly false.

There is also the unforeseen, irreversible damage argument. The total elimination of a pesky nuisance like a mosquito, could be seen as very desirable now, before time and science reveals their unknown, critical ‘role’ in a broader ecosystem.

A survey last year by the FDA found that most UK consumers thought gene-edited products would need to be clearly labelled and identifiable. However, the government has no plans to do this, only to set up an international public registry of all commercial biotechnology products.

A common question is:

‘Could gene-edited crops be grown alongside conventional and organic crops?’  The National Farmer’s Union do not see a problem, as long as transparency and openness are seen as essential to these new breeding techniques: “Coexistence, identity preservation, and sales based on varieties or breeds are an established part of farming now, as well as the separate market for organic produce. The same principles and logistics would apply with gene edited products if the market demands it.”

Read more from the NFU website here:

What are your thoughts and concerns as a consumer?

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