Observer editorial is full of industry talking points and gets basic facts wrong. Claire Robinson reports
The Observer newspaper has published an editorial about last week's ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) stating that the products of certain "new GM" techniques, including so-called genome editing techniques, are GMOs and must be regulated as such.
The ECJ ruling was welcomed by environmental NGOs, including GMWatch, but provoked outrage from pro-industry sources. The Observer editorial comes down firmly on the side of industry. Titled, "The Observer view on Europe’s ban on gene-editing crops", the editorial calls the ruling "illogical and absurd".
In reality, however, it is the Observer editorial that is illogical and absurd. Below we take it apart point by point.
1. The Observer gets the ECJ ruling wrong
The editorial is so irrational and emotive as to be seriously misleading – starting with the title. The ECJ ruling is not a "ban" on genome edited crops. It merely subjects them to the same rules as existing types of GMOs.
Nor, contrary to the Observer editorial, did the court rule that the use of genome editing should be "strictly limited" in Europe. Instead it ruled that the genome editing of crops should be regulated. That isn't the same thing.
2. The Observer makes false claims of precision for the new GM methods
The Observer says, "Crispr, or to give it its full name, Crispr-Cas9, allows scientists to precisely target and edit pieces of the genome."
In making this claim, the Observer wilfully ignores years of scientific studies showing that genome editing techniques like CRISPR have unintended (off-target) effects. In the case of food crops, just as with the earlier GM methods, the new techniques could cause changes in the biochemical pathways of the plant, resulting in the production of novel toxins and allergens and unexpected nutritional changes.
While CRISPR can precisely target the initial cut of the DNA, the subsequent events are neither precise nor controllable. The rest of the process depends on the cell's repair mechanisms "mending" the damaged DNA. Often a perfect repair is not achieved. This can result in unintended deletions or insertions of DNA, with unknown consequences.
We were promised that the transgenic techniques used to develop the first generation of GM crops were "precise". Over the years, this lie unravelled, with myriad unintended effects being documented in the literature. The Observer editorial even admits that the older methods were "imprecise". But it nonetheless takes at face value the lobbyists' claims of precision for the newer methods – claims that are given the lie by the findings of the numerous studies mentioned above.
3. The Observer makes other false and pie-in-the-sky claims about the new GM techniques
The Observer editorial makes evidence-free assumptions that the new GM techniques will deliver crops that will feed the world, survive drought, reduce pesticide use, and resist disease. Phew. That's quite a burden of expectation to place on techniques that haven't been proven to solve any agricultural problem but on the contrary have inherent shortcomings that scientists have thus far failed to solve.
In addition, the new GM techniques, just like the old ones, can only manipulate one or a few genes at a time and thus are not suited to delivering crops with complex genetic traits such as tolerance to certain climatic conditions or disease resistance. Recent research confirms that the proper functioning of living organisms involves the intertwined effects of many genes and not just one or two acting in isolation.
The Observer editorial also claims that "it is virtually impossible to detect whether the DNA of a plant or animal has been edited or not – because the changes involved are indistinguishable from naturally occurring mutations". But this industry claim remains unproven. No one has shown that changes caused by the new GM techniques are the same as those that happen in nature. And even if it were proven to be true in some cases, it would mean that:
(a) it was not necessary to use GM methods to develop these crops; and
(b) the relevant GM crop could not be patented, since patenting requires an "inventive step" that could not happen in nature.
The industry is telling the public one thing – that these techniques reproduce natural processes – and the patent offices another – that these techniques produce a completely novel organism that merits a patent. Both claims cannot be true.
The editorial also makes the extraordinary claim that "Without the advantages brought by gene-editing technology, crops grown in Europe will become more expensive." But this is contrary to the evidence. The introduction of GM crops has correlated with increasing monopolization of seed by biotechnology companies and higher seed costs. It seems obvious that patented GM crops, which almost invariably have to be grown with expensive chemical inputs, will be more expensive than non-GM crops. The new consolidation of the GMO seed markets caused by the mergers of the big GMO firms means that prices can only go one way – up.
4. The Observer wants us to shut our eyes to the process by which "new GMOs" are made
The editorial takes issue with the ECJ ruling on the grounds that it judges crops not on the safety of their traits but only on the technology that was used to create them. Just like industry lobbyists, it wants us to ignore the inherent uncertainties and risks of the new GM techniques and focus only on the intended traits of the final genetically modified organism.
This is scientifically unsound for two reasons. One, because such product-based (also known as trait-based) assessment is only capable of looking at the intended result of the genetic manipulation. It is blind to all unintended changes that might be present in the organism, including the presence of unintended toxins or allergens. And two, because knowledge of the process by which the organism was created can inform regulators about which questions to ask and which risks to investigate.
Demanding that regulators only consider the intended final product and not the process effectively keeps them in the dark about what to look for. Perhaps that is why the industry has been pushing this approach.
5. The Observer is ignorant about the EU's GMO regulation
The Observer rails against the ECJ for – as it claims – ruling "that gene editing is intrinsically unsafe while continuing to allow the use of carcinogenic chemicals and ionising radiation, which create random variations, in conventional crop breeding techniques".
This statement is incorrect. The ECJ didn't say that genome editing is "intrinsically unsafe", any more than it "banned" gene edited crops. It did recognize that genome editing poses similar risks to old-style transgenic techniques.
EU legislators exempted mutation breeding methods using chemicals or ionising radiation from the EU's GMO regulations because they said they "have conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record".
Some may take issue with the assumption of a long safety record for mutation breeding (since no toxicology tests have been performed that could assess the safety of mutation-bred plants). But no one in their right mind could argue that the experimental products of the new genome editing techniques have any kind of safety record, least of all a long one.
In fact the EU did class chemical- and radiation-induced mutation breeding as GM techniques. And interestingly, a report by the National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences assessed the relative likelihood of compositional changes occurring from GM and non-GM plant development techniques. It found that GM posed the greatest risk of producing such changes, with the exception of chemical- or radiation-induced mutation breeding. In other words, GM posed the highest risk. No one has produced any evidence that "new GM" techniques are any less risky in practice, whatever the hopeful theories espoused by the likes of the Observer.
6. The Observer fails to understand the GMO business model
In common with other pro-GMO lobbyists, the Observer bemoans the high cost of putting a GMO through the EU regulatory process, claiming that this system excludes universities and small startup companies and restricts GMO development to giant corporations.
Any small GMO developer with business nous would laugh at this scenario. In the world of pharmaceuticals, a university or small company that develops a promising drug licences or sells the drug to a larger pharmaceutical company to put through clinical trials and regulatory approval processes. No university or small company would ever take a drug to market without seeking external funds.
It's the same in the GMO world. No marketable GMO stalls just because it was developed by a university or small startup company, however cash-strapped it may be. The system is that universities licence the products of their GMO research to a large company and take an ongoing cut of the profits. Alternatively universities can attract investors to help them set up their own company. Or a small company can allow a larger company to buy it out.
Universities and startups make big money from such deals. No one involved sheds any tears about the plight of the small guy, least of all he himself, because he makes a neat profit.
The large company then puts the GMO through the regulatory process. The regulatory costs amount to just 25% of the astronomically high cost of developing and commercializing a GMO.
While GMO regulation is expensive for the developer, it not nearly as expensive as developing the GMO in the first place. The sheer expense of GMO technology is just one of many no-brainer reasons why it will never feed the world.
And given the appalling safety record of the GMO industry and its products, there must be regulatory oversight.
7. The Observer cites biased sources to criticise regulation for "new GM" technology
The Observer cites career crop genetic engineers as sources of criticism for the ECJ ruling. That's equivalent to asking snake oil salesmen what they think about tighter regulations governing the sales of medicines. They're hardly likely to welcome them. Why not interview someone from an environmental or consumer organisation in the interests of balance?
GM technology not needed
In conclusion, the Observer's editorial reads as if it were written by a GMO industry lobbyist – but one who doesn't know his facts. The most important of those facts is that GM technology isn't needed to produce the healthy food that the world needs. Traditional crop breeding continues to be light-years ahead of GM in terms of delivering crops with useful traits. And rather than fixating solely on crop genetics, media outlets could more usefully focus on promoting the resilient farming systems that will enable us to cope with the challenges before us.
1. See, for example, GMO Myths and Truths for relevant references.
2. Phillips McDougall. The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorisation of a new plant biotechnology derived trait: A consultancy study for Crop Life International. Pathhead, Midlothian; 2011.