New GMOs can be radically different from their natural non-GMO counterparts, even when the changes made are apparently minor, writes Testbiotech
A review of the data in current publications shows that the cultivation of plants obtained from new genetic engineering (NGT or New GE) can be used to drastically alter the species-specific characteristics of poplar trees. No additional genes need to be inserted and the trees do not have to produce new or altered proteins. Poplar trees only begin to flower in nature after seven to ten years, but in experiments, after gene scissors-based interventions, they flowered after just four months. Only minor changes in the regulatory genes were necessary to achieve such results.
The aim of the intervention: similar to arable plants, early flowering genetically engineered poplars could be propagated, crossed and selected, thus possibly accelerating the market introduction of New GE poplars.
A poplar tree can produce billions of seeds and huge amounts of pollen during its lifetime, which wind may disperses over several kilometers. The genetically engineered DNA cannot only spread via pollen and seeds, but also via shoots.
The trees have complex interactions with their environment, including other plant species, mycorrhizae (soil fungi), insects and wild life species. Poplar is an important food source for many insects, such as beetles, butterflies and bee species. If the genetically engineered trees cross into trees of native poplar populations , the altered genes may spread quickly. For example, this may cause the natural poplar population to collapse, because its new characteristics are not adapted to the environment. Therefore, among others, the New GE trees may endanger the survival of protected black poplar species. The damage may very well be irreversible, since the genetically altered genes can not be called back from the environment.
The Environmental Committee of the European Parliament will be voting on the future regulation of plants obtained from new genetic engineering techniques (NGTs) on Wednesday this week. If the responsible rapporteur, Jessica Polfjärd (EPP), succeeds in pushing the vote through, then genetically engineered trees and bushes as well as crop plants, grasses and flowers could all be released into the environment without undergoing risk assessment.
In contrast, members of the EU Parliament, such as Christoph Clergeau (S&D) or Martin Häusling (Greens/EFA), are demanding mandatory risk assessment for all NGT plants. This position, for example, is based on the analysis of the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES, 2023) or the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GFOE) that particularly warns for the risks of wild species. In this context, ecologist Prof Dr Katja Tielbörger warned that around 300,000 wild plant species may be impacted by the planned deregulation, with unpredictable and detrimental consequences for ecology and biodiversity.
Testbiotech is urging the rejection of the planned deregulation and the continuation of mandatory risk assessment of all NGT plants on case-by-case basis.
Project Genetic Engineering and the Environment: background on NGT poplar
The GfOE opinion
Background: "10 questions and answers: What do we really know about NGT plants?"
Background: "New genetic engineering (NGT): EU Parliament in the maze"