David Green, Executive Director at U.S. Sustainability Alliance and a commentator and advisor on food and agriculture for GreenOrange, argues that gene-edited crops are not GMOs 2.0
Millennia ago, a farmer fashioned a crude plough that could be dragged through soil by an ox. This marked a technological breakthrough in food production. Gone were the days of planting seeds through backbreaking, soil breaking work with a crude stick. Through the ages, technology has helped farming at all levels, from sophisticated Roman crop irrigation systems to hybrid seeds, and from that ox-drawn plough to the tractor. Farmers need new and safe ways to raise better crops and livestock, with even the poorest farmer improvising or looking to technology to farm better.
Genetically modified (GM) crops
Today, we live in an age where science is challenged as never before when it comes to the food we eat and how it is produced. It is fair to say that the most recent controversial technology adopted in food production is genetically modified (GM) crops. First planted in 1996, GM crops have been consumed in trillions of meals across the world with no evidence of harm to humans or animals. Farmers cite GM for its ease in production, lower greenhouse gas emissions and less chemical use; small farmers in India and Bangladesh who use hand sprayers find that GM cotton means fewer pesticides which, in turn, means greater health and safety.
While GM crops revolutionised global thinking on the adoption of new technology, we are on the cusp of another generation of genetic technology – gene editing. Unlike genetic modification which introduces foreign DNA from another organism or species, gene editing involves cutting and splicing sections of DNA within a single genome. This is a more precise plant breeding technique that allows trait development in a more specific and targeted way than lengthy and laborious traditional breeding.
Gene-editing for crops
Gene editing’s potential will provide crops that are disease resistant, drought tolerant, require fewer pesticides or fertilisers, or which have enhanced nutritional properties. For example, at the end of last year, Japan approved a ‘gene-edited’ tomato which has five times the normal amount of GABA, an amino acid linked to lower blood pressure.
In early January, the UK launched a public consultation on gene editing when the environment secretary said: “Gene editing can harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided, in order to tackle the challenges of our age ……..[through] breeding crops that perform better, reducing costs to farmers and impacts on the environment, and helping us all adapt to the challenges of climate change.” On February 23, less than three weeks before the close of the consultation, Prime Minister Johnson, speaking to the National Farmers Union, echoed his minister: “Now is the time to embrace a new modern age of farming …… with potentially revolutionary technology such as gene editing.”
“While GM crops revolutionised global thinking on the adoption of a new technology, we are on the cusp of another generation of genetic technology – gene editing. Unlike genetic modification which introduces foreign DNA from another organism or species, gene editing involves cutting and splicing sections of DNA within a single genome.”
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted the SECURE rule (SECURE standing for Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient) which updated U.S. biotechnology regulations. The rule also: “exempts from regulation plants that could otherwise have been developed through conventional breeding techniques.
Across the world, countries including Australia, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Kenya have also opted for a “light regulatory approach” as they do not see gene editing or new breeding techniques (NBTs) as subject to GM regulation. The situation in the European Union (EU), however, is markedly different. In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that NBTs are GM and thus subject to the EU’s stringent GM regulations.
This Court decision sparked immediate counter-reactions from scientists, farmers, and industry calling for the GM classification to be removed. Supporting the ruling are professional activists and NGOs which argue that gene editing was simply GM 2.0 and should be regulated and labelled as such. The controversy prompted the European Commission to promise a long-awaited report on gene editing and particularly how the technology should be regulated, which is due to be published this April.
Is food safe today?
Food is probably safer and more nutritious (at least in developed economies) than at any time in history. Yet, many consumers are concerned. Is it safe? How is it made? What has been done to it? And, crucially, are new technologies such as genetic modification or genome editing morally acceptable when tinkering with nature?
Henry Ford said that had he asked people what they wanted; they would have said faster horses. Introducing a new technology can be far from easy – coffee, margarine, electricity, even mobile phones all faced opposition. Departures from the ‘old way’ of doing things to taking up ‘new ways’ can trigger wariness, fear and even rejection, with old ways often being deemed to be best. The debate on gene editing will gear up and with it will be the need to weigh up the risks and costs of adopting the technology against the risk and costs of not adopting.
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