Opinion: new breed GMO’s – threat or promise?

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credit Beyond GM

With the emergence of new genetic engineering techniques – or GMO 2.0 – new genetically engineered organisms can be created more cheaply, easily and quickly than ever before. These techniques are being used to change our food system, with still unknown consequences.

New generation GMO’s look set to change the world as we know it. Pat Thomas, co-founder of Beyond GM explains why we may need to be concerned.

What is gene editing? 

This is the generic name for the newest types of genetic engineering techniques, used by biotech companies, and favoured by the UK government. They include new fast track CRISPR breeding techniques said to emulate natural selection, as well as synthetic biology (synbio), whereby new DNA strands can be created on computers and used to create new life forms and substances (fuel, plastics, fabrics and industrial chemicals).

Why is it different from first generation GMO’s? 

Gene editing using CRISPR technology can make cuts in an organism’s DNA at a precise location. This precision, scientists claim, makes creating new species faster and less prone to error. There’s yet to be any proof that this is true, though. With synbio, microorganisms like bacteria and algae are re-engineered to produce flavourings, oils and other ingredients for processed foods.

What’s its purpose? 

The same as first generation GMOs, to re-engineer living organisms – plants, trees, animals etc. – to fit into an increasingly industrialised approach to farming & food production, and one that is increasingly removed from nature. It also has much greater potential to create patented – and therefore hugely profitable – techno foods, such as meat and protein substitutes, which biotech companies claim are more planet friendly and sustainable.

What’s the government’s position? 

The government has made it clear that it sees biotech foods and gene edited crops fulfilling a major role in British farming & food post-Brexit. A great deal of ‘tax payer’ money already gets funnelled into research for this technology (although money made from exploiting the patents goes to private individuals and companies).This could have disastrous implications for the development of agro-ecological farming methods which consumers want, including organic and biodynamic. 

 Will GMO.2’s be labelled?

The EU has declared gene editing requires the same regulatory safeguardsincluding labelling as older style GMO’sThe UK government will continue to regulate but not ban older style GMO’s- e.g. insecticide producing and pesticide resistant maize, soya, oilseed rape and cotton. But Brexit is being used as an opportunity to break with the EU approach and deregulate gene editing. We saw this with the recent attempt to add an amendment to the UK Agriculture Bill that would exempt new GMOs from regulation. Government will try again, and if it is successful, it will mean new generation GM foods will be exempt from premarket testing and post market surveillance and, crucially, labelling.

What are your major concerns? 

Gene edited GMO’s are being promoted as being benign, beneficial for the public, closer to Nature and good for sustainability. In reality it is taking us deeper into a wholly industrialised model of farming, which we already know is not working. While the government insists gene editing is just one ‘tool’ in the ‘toolbox’, in reality there is no plan for, and little possibility of, GM and the agro-ecological approaches working side by side.

 I worry that the confusion of terms such as ‘new plant breeding techniques’, ‘precision farming’ and ‘agritech’, as well as words such as ‘tweaking’ or ‘editing’ instead of engineering, is encouraging the public and farmers to switch off from this subject just at the moment when we should all really be engaged.  

The same concerns as for the first generation GMO’s remain but because the term GMO is being shunted out of the limelight, the public is unaware of how aggressively gene editing is being pushed by the government and the NFU. For instance, the use of gene editing is enshrined in the UK government’s Health and Harmony vision for agriculture and “Future Farming Policy” but is hidden behind names such as those mentioned above and ‘the bioeconomy’. It is also central to the NFU’s Achieving Net Zero strategy and it will be part of the focus of Part 2 of the National Food Strategy, due early next year.

Deregulation and loss of labelling will lead to less consumer choice and more highly processed ‘techno’ foods at the time when there is an urgent need for our diets to go in the opposite direction, towards more natural, healthy unprocessed foods. 

What should we do? 

GM technology remains one of the most crucial issues in our food system, yet decisions are been taken without the public being aware or involved. The government has recently said it is preparing a public consultation on this issue for the autumn. We urge everyone who cares about their food and the environment to engage and to fully grasp what’s at stake. We should all be insisting of proof of ‘need’ and benefit, on effective regulation to protect us from all that we don’t know and cannot predict, and demanding greater investment in agro-ecological alternatives which are already working right now and produce us quality food in a sustainable way. 

Pat Thomas, co-founder Beyond GM

Ed : Our sincere thanks to Pat. The Beyond GM website will keep you update and what you can do if you are concerned , and contains a wealth of information written specifically for the general public: https://beyond-gm.org