Gene editing will fall at the same GM hurdles

Genome editing is a powerful research tool, with huge potential to aid our environmental challenges – but all the signs are that it will be used to take us further in the wrong direction.

Be careful what you ask for. So 2000 years of fables tell us. I am convinced that we often have little idea what we want, and even less idea what is good for us – often craving the opposite.

We have only survived this long (a blink compared to the dinosaurs’ rule) because of our constraints. But through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and now the Digital Revolution, we have pushed back the limits, and entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Humans are now the primary shapers of our planet. Unless we can manage our newfound powers wisely, the era will be short.

This week, I joined a debate hosted by Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation and Natural Products Global on genome editing: a technology with the potential to be as life and planet-altering as the Digital Revolution, without being possible to unplug if it goes awry. It differs from traditional genetic modification as it edits existing genes, rather than inserting new ones, and proponents hope that this distinction will enable less rigid regulation

Wheat
Gene editing can help answer research questions in plant science.

Back in 1998, I challenged our government in a high court judicial review of the legality of a genetically modified (GM) maize trial bordering our farm. I lost, but it helped to bring attention to the issue, alongside Prince Charles’ warning that we were entering “realms that belong to God and God alone”. 22 years later, the health risks of GM have mostly not materialised – but neither have the benefits. There has been no great increase in crop yields, and adoption has been accompanied by an increase in chemical use as a primary trait of the most widespread GM crops is resistance to Monsanto-owned herbicide, glyphosate.

The debate has largely moved from the safety of GM itself, to its application and control. To date, GM varieties have mostly been used by large-scale, pesticide-intensive monocultures: soya in the deforested Amazon, and maize, cotton and soya in North America and Australia.

To paraphrase a fellow panellist, genetic engineer Jack Heinemann: GM, genome editing, and varietal patenting look set to concentrate even more wealth and power in the hands of an ever-smaller global elite. They deliver nothing for the subsistence farmers who produce 80 per cent of the world’s food.

Genome editing is a powerful research tool, with huge potential to aid our environmental challenges – but instead, all the signs are that it will be used to take us further in the wrong direction. Some would argue that it is a solution looking for a problem; a seductive distraction, appealing to the prevalent tech-driven, neoliberal global model.

Our environmental and health issues would be better addressed through agro-ecology, the reduction of waste and conflict, fairer access to land, and the consumption of less meat, sugar and processed food: the things we crave.

6 Comments

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  1. How refreshing to hear some reasonable sensible views on GM! We have no say in the way our food is grown and presented to us, Yet there is evidence of the harm being done to the environment,wildlife and humans. It seems very few want to know. One only has to concider the huge increase in diseases that were once unheard of, like auto immune diseases, of which I am a sufferer, cancer, diabetes depression and countless more. Could there be a connection? We are foolish not to at least put more honest research into this by people who are not led by big business.

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    1. Totally agree. Meanwhile I carry on clicking petitions and sending tenners to groups fighting big agro chemical corps in the courts about pesticides. And leaving bits of garden to wild for the pollinators. So pleased to see two kinds of bee working my four runner bean plants.
      Another big business vs health issue is water fluoridation, now proven to reduce babies IQ by 5 IQ points or more. It isn’t actually a very effective way of reducing dental caries, and society suffers from having twice the learning disabled children and half the gifted ones. Who knows what the cocktail effect of agro chemicals is? -it isn’t tested.

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  2. Thank you Guy. I love to read your inspirational editorials!
    My dream is that the U.K. becomes the world leader in sustainable organic GM free farming. We are an island and it could be done, if only the ‘powers that be’ could see the potential and make it happen.

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    1. A good dream, and one that many share. Let’s keep demanding that our government start to engage fullywith the climate crisis and the need for sustainable food production, and put agroecology at the heart of this.

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  3. In my naivety I find myself wondering why vast amounts of time and money are spent on a technology which I ask do we need? This sets aside the questions of safety etc. Will it lead to a shrinking of the varieties of a certain crop being available? We need as much variety as possible let alone all the other considerations. Thanks Guy for your wisdom.

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  4. If the debate has moved on from the safety of GM, it’s not for good scientific reasons. As Dr Michael Antoniou, a leading health molecular geneticist and Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at Kings College London, who has conducted research on GM foods, has pointed out, “There have been many well-conducted, laboratory animal feeding studies which have consistently shown negative health outcomes from the consumption of GM food, whether it be soy, whether it be corn, or other things. And this includes impacts on the liver function and kidney function. These are two organs that are particularly negatively impacted but also digestive system disturbances and immune system disturbances have been found as well.” Dr Antoniou also points out that, “no human epidemiological studies have been conducted in regions of the world where most GM food is being consumed… to see whether there is a link between consumption of GM foods and health. So any claim that, ‘Oh, people have been eating these foods for decades now and nothing untoward has happened’ is a totally unscientific statement, because there is no evidence to back that up because no studies have been investigating that. But we can point to numerous controlled laboratory animal feeding studies as an indicator that not all is well.” In the light of that, he says, we should be looking for whether there are adverse effects in the human population as well. But nobody is doing that. Patrick Halford’s interview with Dr Antoniou is here https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/podcast/in-conversation-with-dr-michael-antoniou/

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