In July the European Court of Justice ruled that ‘gene editing’ techniques (known as ‘GMO 2.0’) are techniques to modify genes and should therefore be subject to the same regulations that apply to ‘traditional’ genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A lot of people, me included, breathed a sigh of relief. Biotech and agrochemical companies denounced the verdict as ‘unscientific’, resorting to a by now tried and tested method: ‘semantic editing’ or ‘semantic engineering’.
How that works I learnt at a conference in Berlin, earlier this month. ‘The industry is appropriating our language, the language of agroecology, to describe what they do and suddenly it all sounds benign and positive’, said Dr Angelika Hilbeck, from Zurich University. ‘Precision farming’, ‘climate smart’ and ‘innovative’ are just some of the expressions used by advocates of ‘bio engineering’. Technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 are nothing like ‘traditional genetic engineering’, the industry claims. It’s a ‘precise tool to cut out a tiny portion of DNA’, a tiny intervention that does not involve DNA of a different species as was the case with ‘traditional’ GMOs where DNA of a fish could well end up in a tomato. No, CRISPR/Cas9, says the industry, is ‘just like breeding’, only faster and more precise. We are making nature better, they claim. So what’s not to like?
Just about everything.
By the way, this blog is about food, please bear with me!
Dr Margaret Engelhardt is a molecular biologist at the German Ministry for the Environment, and assessing the possible risks of GMO 2.0 technology is part of her job. The developments happen with lightening speed, to change the DNA has become cheap, it’s automated, it’s fast and, it’s become a job for engineers rather than biologist, she says. And she concludes: GMO 2.0 is about ‘a different mind-set, it’s not thinking within nature, but beyond nature’.
A look at who finances the research into GMO 2.0 gives some insight into what the new techniques are all about: the military and the money that potentially can be made from the thousands of patents that are already pending. The financiers? Donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DARPA, the (US) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is part of the Pentagon.
What’s a gene drive?
Already within reach are ‘gene drives’, a technology which has led to excitement among strange bed fellows: it is equally supported by the military and some ecologists. GMO 2.0 and CRISPR/Cas9 make it possible ‘for researchers to bypass the rules of genetics’, says Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist. Maybe you remember Gregor Mendel and his peas from school biology: the rules of inheritance mean that genes come in pairs and an offspring inherits half of the genes from the father and half from the mother. So the chances for any trait to be passed on is roughly 50/50. But in the GMO 2.0 world this rule doesn’t apply anymore. With CRISPR/Cas9 it is theoretically possible to shift the probability of a particular trait being passed on to 90/10. ‘That’s population scale genetic engineering’, says Ricarda Steinbrecher. Why is a ‘gene drive’ exiting to some and absolutely scary to others? One trait that can be passed on is male sterility. And when 90% of all males in a species can be made sterile, then that means the end of that species within just a few generations. Great, you will hear some scientists say, we can sterilize mosquitos and eradicate malaria, we can eradicate pests that harm food crops. We can think beyond nature, make it better.
And earn a lot of money in the process. The problem is: if it doesn’t work or if something goes wrong, there is no way to take it back. Unfortunately the history the ‘old’ GMOs is proof that things can and do go wrong:
GMO 1.0: Not as promised
GM crops entered the scene in the mid 90s. Almost all of the GM crops grown today have been made herbicide and/ or pesticide resistant: you can douse a field with weed killers like glyphosate and not kill your maize or soy crop. The problem is that the weeds have developed resistance. This summer US scientist found water hemp, a common weed, that was resistant to six of the eight different herbicides it was sprayed with.
GMO 1.0 would make crops healthier and better, we were told. Like ‘golden rice’, a GM variety engineered to be rich in vitamin A. Almost thirty years on, golden rice is still grown only in very few places because yields are bad and the rice, if it is available at all, is too expensive to buy for poor people who are the ones likely to suffer from vitamin A deficiency.
GMO 2.0: Known unknowns and unknown unknowns
With CRISPR/Cas9 scientist supposedly can ‘edit’ a gene precisely. But there are unintended consequences. Researchers at Columbia University found more than 1,500 unintended changes on the genome of mice after one ‘edit’. What does that have to do with food? The first GMO 2.0 produce is already on supermarket shelves. The flesh of the Arctic® apple does not brown when cut because the production of the enzyme that causes the browning (i.e. the oxidization) was inhibited through CRISPR/Cas9. Apart from the fact that apple growers have created apple varieties that do not brown easily through traditional breeding – who needs non browning apples when you can either just eat your apple or squeeze a bit of lemon juice on it if you are preparing apple slices?
Non browning GM mushrooms have been approved for sale. GM soy is being modified so that the oil can withstand higher cooking temperatures without producing trans fats; another GM soy variety supposedly is herbicide resistant. All these modifications are potentially cost saving and therefore highly interesting for the food industry – but for consumers?
There is no upside
If you make that point bioengineers will tell you that we need GMO 2.0 to combat climate change. But the drought resistant crops we are being promised may well be as illusive as ‘golden rice’. Drought resistance is the result of a highly complicated and timed interplay of the plant’s genome. If creating a non browning apple is like slapping a new coat of paint onto the walls of your front room, creating drought resistant crops is like extending your house six floors under ground while re-plumbing and rewiring it –your neighbours might start suing you because you’ve ruined their properties in the process of pursuing a fool’s errand. By the way: eradicating mosquitos may not spell the end of malaria – the pathogen may simply switch to another host to get to us.
We need a moratorium
Right now CRISPR foods may still be a side show. But gene drives are an imminent threat, and the scientists at the Berlin conference agreed that a moratorium is desperately needed. So watch out for news from the UN Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El Sheik in November – it may be for GMO 2.0 what Paris was for climate change: a huge wakeup call.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
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