The "could happen in nature" argument is a meaningless distraction and says nothing about the safety of gene technologies, explains Prof Jack Heinemann
In an excellent video interview with Philippa Jamieson of Soil & Health NZ, the genetic engineer Prof Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand explains in simple, non-technical language why new GM techniques should not be deregulated. Following is a paraphrase (not word-for-word quotes) of his presentation.
Prof Heinemann said people are being manipulated by GMO industry language into accepting the deregulation of new GMOs. He implied that the argument that some new GMOs "could happen in nature" is a meaningless distraction because even if some new GMOs are conventional-like, this doesn't mean they don't pose risks – and it's no reason to deregulate them.
By analogy, fission of the radioactive element uranium can happen naturally (albeit rarely), but a nuclear bomb explosion scales up the process massively, and with that upscaling comes far greater risk. So it's clear that we should not deregulate the making and use of nuclear bombs. It is the scaling up that increases risks. In nature, birds and insects fly, but that is no reason to deregulate commercial aircraft. Regulation is a way to manage risks.
In the case of new GMOs, Prof Heinemann said deregulation is in reality just a way of removing labelling and people's power to choose non-GMO.
On whether new GMOs can be detected, he said of course detection is possible, or industry would not be able to enforce its patents. But deregulation would enable developers to keep the detection method secret. Currently in the EU, a detection method for each GMO must be disclosed as condition of approval and Prof Heinemann said this should continue to be enforced.
Prof Heinemann said you can break down any technology into small enough pieces and claim that each piece can happen in nature. That is the justification that is being used to promote the deregulation of gene technologies. What makes a process into a technology is the ability to make a genetic change, or multiple changes, at will. All technologies respond to regulation. What qualifies them for regulation is not a narrative about whether parts of them look like what happens in nature. It's the fact that they can be used at a scale, or in a place, or in a timescale that could result in harm.
With gene technologies, our intervention in the genome is scaled up compared with what could happen in nature, and we can release billions of GMOs at once. So regulations are required.
With natural breeding, the chances of harm are low. And the timescale at which breeding interventions occur is large enough to enable us to adapt. With gene technology, the scale at which human intervention is thrust upon the earth is much increased – and there aren't the normal suppression mechanisms that would be in a healthy ecosystem to control that harm.
We should never consider a technology as benign. If you remove GMOs from the scope of the GMO regulations, you remove them from the possibility of safety assessment and you prevent individuals from using market power to avoid them. The first RNAi pesticide to be deregulated in the US is targeted against the Colorado beetle pest. But the number of organisms that could be exposed is enormous. There are billions of microorganisms per gram of soil – we don't know that it won't affect them. But at least it is still regulated in the US; there had to be some evidence of non-toxicity to some organisms.
Regarding the organic sector, if these GMOs are deregulated, you will never be able to prevent or stop contamination. And if these GMOs are deregulated, and classed as non-GMOs, the argument will be made that there is no [GMO] contamination.
Some gene technology products can be used to spray produce in the supermarket. RNAi (a gene-disruption technology) can be used to modify the genes of other organisms, not just insects – it could be used on plants or mammals. You could spray a dsRNA molecule or CRISPR/Cas gene editing tool that could get inside organisms and change them in the same way we would do in the laboratory.
Already there are patents projecting the use of such products in a live setting, like a grocery store. For example, there are genes coding for enzymes that create ripening hormones. These genes could be silenced so that they do not produce that enzyme. So the fruit or vegetables will appear ripe for longer. These products will be aerosolised and people could be exposed. Other sprayed gene technology products will be used to alter the colours of flowers while they are growing in the field.
If there is regulation, you have to demonstrate that these products will not harm people. If there is no regulation, there is no requirement to demonstrate that.
But even if they are regulated, there is no way that the entire world's biome will be tested for adverse effects. The ability to use these things as sprays is a scaling up of the technology, which means increased risk.
Prof Heinemann said, "I don't view gene technology as a way of altering the world, just a way to tell us how the world works."
Notes added by GMWatch
1. Prof Heinemann disagrees with the term "new GMOs", as he points out that gene editing techniques have existed for many years (though they are relatively newly applied in agriculture). Instead he favours the terms "gene technology" and "products of gene technology". He doesn't make a cut-off distinction between such technologies as gene editing/RNAi and older, transgenic GM methods.
2. e.g. see this paper: "Nuclear fission chain reactions occur in nature. In 1972, scientists at the French Atomic Energy Establishment at Pierrelatte discovered the nearly intact remains of a natural nuclear fission reactor in a 0.5-m-thick seam of uranium ore located at Oklo, in the Republic of Gabon. Subsequently, other reactor zones were discovered in the region and appear to have functioned as self-sustained nuclear fission reactors about 1,800 million years ago."
Further information: Heinemann JA et al. Differentiated impacts of human interventions on nature: Scaling the conversation on regulation of gene technologies. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene (2021) 9 (1): 00086. https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00086