May 27 2022

UK Seeks to Allow Gene-Edited Plants

I guess some good came out of Brexit. The EU essentially has banned GMO (genetically modified organisms) products, which I believe is unscientific and overly restrictive. Anti-GMO attitudes are demonstrably correlated with poor knowledge about agriculture and genetics. That’s because anti-GMO attitudes were largely created by a propaganda campaign based on lies and disinformation. For example, many people who oppose GMOs claim that Monsanto sued farmers over accidental contamination. This is absolutely not true, but it successfully demonized the industry.

The UK is now free to make up their own regulations regarding GMOs and they appear to on the verge of loosening their restrictions. However – they are limiting this loosening to “gene-edited” organisms and only plants (not animals). It’s a half-step, but at least it’s in the right direction. What is the difference between genetically modified and gene-edited?

“Gene-edited” is a new category, covering genetic changes that were previously lumped in under GMO, primarily because of the availability of new technology. A gene-edited crop is one in which one or more genes were either turned on or off, but no new genetic material was added. GMO is now limited to organisms where new genetic material is added (either cisgenic if from the same species, or transgenic if from a different species). Why the difference? It’s all ultimately arbitrary, not based on any rational science. For example, you can use radiation or chemicals to rapidly mutate crops, plant hundreds of the mutants, and then select the ones that happen to have desired traits (a process called mutation farming). That’s OK, and not considered genetically modified. Such plants even count as “organic” (another arbitrary label). But if you precisely insert a known gene, that somehow is considered a GMO and demonized by a large segment of the population.

Trying to sidestep the decades long campaign to turn the public against GMO with propaganda, some proponents and regulators created the new category of gene-edited, partly in response to CRISPR which allows for much more rapid and cheap turning on and off of genes. Many more gene-edited crops were being created, and in some countries regulators decided that these did not pose the same level of risk as actually inserting a new gene. We’ll take the partial win – but I have to point out that there is zero demonstrated risk of even transgenic GMOs.

The proposed UK regulation would allow the growing and selling of plants that have been gene-edited. It will still not lift the EU ban on GMOs or on gene edited animals, basically because of lingering bias and propaganda. For example, their reason for not lifting the ban on gene-edited animals is because they want to do more study to ensure that the resulting animals will not suffer. I am all for animals not suffering, and regulating the industry to make sure they don’t. But there is, again, zero reason to think that gene-editing will cause suffering. Obviously each individual change needs to be evaluated on its own merits, and again I am all for regulating the industry and evaluating and approving each individual proposed change. That’s what happens now. Proposed gene-editing is aimed, for example, and making animals more disease resistant. This is good for the animals, good for industry, and good for the consumer. I don’t know how disease resistance will cause an animal to suffer. But fine – evaluate the research for any proposed change, rather than having a blanket ban based on vague and unjustified fears.

The anti-GMO crowd, including the organic lobby, has responded with predictably weak arguments. As the BBC reports:

Jo Lewis, policy director of the organic food body the Soil Association, was critical of the bill, saying it: “avoids dealing head-on with the transformation needed in our food and farming system for true security and resilience.

“We are deeply disappointed to see the government prioritising unpopular technologies rather than focusing on the real issues – unhealthy diets, a lack of crop diversity, farm animal overcrowding, and the steep decline in beneficial insects who can eat pests.

First, the technology still has >50% support, more if used to improve the quality of food rather than profits for farmers (those greedy farmers, barely scraping by with razor-thin margins). More importantly, they are only unpopular to the extent that organic lobbyists like Lewis unfairly demonized the technology. His argument is therefore – don’t use this technology because we made it unpopular to boost our own competing brand. He also commits a classic (and in this case false) fallacy of relative privation – don’t focus on this issue, but rather focus on this other issue that we think is more important because we say so. Of course, using GMOs has absolutely nothing to do with the issues Lewis says are more important, like unhealthy diets and animal crowding. His argument is therefore a complete non-sequitur.

It gets worse. He further says:

He said history had proven that gene editing’s predecessor GM “only benefits a minority of big businesses with a major rise in controlling crop patents and unwelcome, profitable traits such as herbicide-resistant weeds.”

Crop patents have been popular since 1930, when the first crop patent regulation was passed. Since then the vast majority of seeds sold have been hybrids, which are mostly patented and cannot be replanted. GMOs do generally have a higher level of patent protection (a utility patent rather than a plant patent) because they can provide a lot more information about the genetics of the cultivar and they can protect the new genetic code they created, not just the overall variety. But this does not change much for farmers – they still have to buy patented seeds every year. Again, before GMOs most (like 98%) of commercial crops were hybrids, which by definition cannot be replanted (the hybrid traits do not breed through).

Further, now that we are more than 20 years out from the first GMO they are starting to come off patent. Generic GMO varieties are now coming on the market, at much lower prices, and farmers can save and replant seeds if they want to. So this is actually an improvement over the pre-GMO era where most seeds were hybrids. The generic market is still ramping up, but farmers can already buy generic GMO soybeans.

Also, what is the problem with “profitable” traits? If they are safe (they are) and they make farming more efficient (they do), what’s the problem? This is also part of a common strategy for anti-GMO propaganda, make the public think that “GMO” equals herbicide-resistant. They beat this drum endlessly, and it works. But genetic modification (and gene-editing) is a technology. It is not tied to any one application. It makes no sense to demonize an entire technology because you don’t like one or a few applications. Modification and editing can also be used to make crops disease resistant, drought tolerant, have improved nutrition, delayed spoiling, or cold tolerance. This allows farmers to grow more food on less land, makes food safer and more nutritious, and will help us adapt plants to a warming climate. But egads – some company might make money in the process. We can’t let that happen.

That is literally the best they have. That and straight-up lying. They will even oppose a GMO that was developed publicly, is not patented, will be made free to farmers, and improves nutrition in order to fight a scourge afflicting the world’s poor (golden rice).  They are desperate to stop this technology from saving poor children from blindness and death because it might put a public win in the GMO column. And their arguments are similarly pathetic. Such are the wages of extreme ideology. But we’ll take a small victory for science and reason in the UK.


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