Parts of the UK scientific establishment are attempting to overturn existing GMO regulations and deceive consumers, writes Claire Robinson
There's a massive lobbying effort in Europe, led by the UK, to exempt new "genome editing" techniques from GMO regulations and labelling. Currently crops and animals produced using these methods fall squarely within the European definition of a GMO, which is an organism in which “the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.
Technologies have been developed that are intended to target GM gene insertion to a predetermined site within the plant’s DNA in an effort to obtain a more predictable outcome than old-fashioned transgenic genetic modification can offer.
Unfortunately, however, these new techniques are not precise. Studies have found that they cause unintended genomic modifications in off-target sites, potentially causing a range of harmful side-effects.
It's highly unlikely that these peer-reviewed findings will be mentioned by the pro-GMO lobby group Sense About Science and its chosen experts, who are running a live Q&A session on genome editing today.
Meanwhile the UK's main public science funding body, the BBSRC, has published a lobbying statement arguing for the precision of genome editing techniques. One interesting thing about this statement and others arguing the same line is their implicit admission that old-fashioned transgenic methods are imprecise. It's taken many years for the GMO lobby to admit this and of course they only do so when industry has something "new" and "better" to offer.
BBSRC rides roughshod over science to engage in political lobbying
More insidiously, the BBSRC is using the supposed precision of genome editing to lobby for process-based GMO regulation to be abolished. Process-based regulation focuses on the techniques used to create a new crop variety. Europe and many other regions of the world currently have process-based GMO regulation in place. If the new crop variety is developed through GM, then in Europe and many other regions of the world, it must be assessed for safety and labelled. In Europe at least, that means consumers won't buy it.
The alternative to process-based regulation is product-based regulation, where the regulator looks at the trait the crop is engineered to express and regulates it on that basis. So if a crop were engineered to produce a pesticide, it would be regulated as a pesticide. If it were engineered to contain higher levels of a nutrient, it would probably escape regulation or it may be regulated as a natural food or drug, depending on the country and the product. In neither case would safety assessments specific to GM crops be triggered.
The countries with product-based regulation? The US and Canada. These countries have minimal oversight of GMO crops and foods. The US, for example, only regulates GMOs if they are pesticides or plant pests, and assumes that GMO Bt pesticidal plants are harmless to humans and animals because natural Bt is allegedly harmless to humans and animals. It completely ignores the fact that the GMO Bt toxin is different from natural Bt in structure and mode of action, thus losing its specificity to insect pests and opening up the possibility that it is toxic or allergenic to humans and animals.
It is, of course, impossible to label GMO products if the process by which they were created is ignored. So if the lobbyists get their way and Europe goes for product-based regulation, it's goodbye to GMO labels.
It's no coincidence that the BBSRC and Sense About Science are using this particular time to lobby for Europe to follow the US and Canada down the road of worthless product-based regulatory assessments and no labelling. This is precisely the aim of the TTIP free trade agreement, which aims to force Europe to drop its GMO regulatory standards in the name of scrapping trade barriers.
The Daily Telegraph has already got the message, publishing a story today about the BBSRC's statement headlined, "Europe must lift GM food limits to help feed planet, say experts". It's the usual cynical blackmail, implying that anyone who opposes GMO regulation and labelling is denying food to the poor and hungry. And needless to say, there is zero scientific evidence that genome edited crops yield better than non-GM crops or solve any of the challenges facing agriculture.
The only "benefit" that genome edited crops offer is that they are patentable. This is the sole reason why the UK is so interested in them. It's the commercial imperative, not the moral imperative, that's driving this lobbying bandwagon. As the BBSRC's chief executive, Prof Jackie Hunter, said, "With its excellent plant science research, the UK is well placed to lead the world in crop improvement and to facilitate the step-change in agricultural productivity that will be required to feed the world sustainably." In simple terms, if the world wants to eat, they'll have to pay some business interest in the UK.
It is shameful to see the BBSRC using taxpayers' money to promote unscientific lobbying messages with the aim of giving genome edited products a free pass in Europe. Let's remind the BBSRC what the role of science should be. It is to provide scientific data. It is NOT to ride roughshod over scientific findings and attack democratically established laws in order to promote commercial interests.