Gideon Henderson says debate needed on genetically modified crops and gene editing of plants and animals
Gideon Henderson, senior scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, believes the time is ripe for a new public debate on biotechnology, the science of gene editing in plants and animals.
“The last time we had a full public discussion was in the 1990s,” he notes. Back then, public outrage over the idea of “Frankenfoods” centered on fears about what might result from newly available techniques that allow the introduction of genes from one species into an entirely different species.
Ridiculous stories about tomatoes modified with fish genes made headlines.
These fears were further fueled by real or perceived boasts from companies such as Monsanto that could potentially control the future food chain and force farmers to buy expensive seeds and weedkillers, as well as the possibility that genetically modified crops could contaminate conventional or wild plants through cross-pollination.
The result was widespread public revulsion, and the EU quickly enacted a moratorium on genetically modified crops that remains in effect today, with only a few exceptions.
Many developing countries imposed similar rules on their farmers, fearing exclusion from the EU market.
In the intervening decades, science has advanced. Gene-editing tools that act as “genetic scissors” now allow a degree of precision that was unthinkable in the 1990s: individual genes can be targeted and sections of their DNA manipulated so that cutting and pasting works like an electronic document. This brings within reach genetic selection within a species that was previously only possible through decades of selective breeding.
But while scientists see a clear difference between gene editing – working within a single species to alter the genetic code in ways identical to the effects of selective breeding – and genetic modification, which involves mixing genes from different species in ways that could never happen in nature, EU judges disagreed. The 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice effectively halted the development of genetically modified crops in Europe, subjecting them to the same rules as genetically modified crops, which many scientists see as a mistake.
Nick Talbot, Executive Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said, “Gene editing offers the opportunity to do precision plant breeding, thereby harnessing the extraordinary biodiversity of crop species. Very complex traits that contribute to crop yield and their ability to adapt to environmental change can be better understood and new varieties developed.
It is important that this technology – which has already won the Nobel Prize and is vital in biomedical science – is evaluated for use in agriculture in the UK.”
Gene editing can be used in plants and animals, but its use in humans is controversial. Gene-edited foods would likely be subject to new labeling rules, but exactly how labeling would work is one of the concerns of the consultation.
Robin May, senior scientific adviser to the Food Standards Agency, said, “As with all novel foods, gene-edited foods will only be allowed to be marketed if they are deemed safe for human health, do not mislead the consumer and have no less nutritional value than existing equivalent foods.”
Allowing gene editing in England would also give a big boost to the biotech industry and the U.K.’s research and development capabilities.
The government is keen to draw a clear distinction between gene editing and genetic modification, but if gene editing is allowed, it raises the question of whether genetic modification should be re-evaluated.
Henderson believes this debate is longer-term. “Some would agree [that genetically modified crops are the next logical step], others would disagree,” he said. “One of the reasons for the second half of the consultation is to gather views on GM, and there could be legislation on GMOs in the longer term.
But the more immediate issue is precision editing. W