GMOs or Genetically-Modified Organisms, generally come in two forms. There are those which are modified to resist disease, normally through a change in an animal or plants’ abilities to produce certain defense mechanisms, and those that are genetically modified to resist the chemical herbicide Glyphosate.
An anticipated June 17th decision in England may see Boris Johnson’s proposed loosening of genetic-editing come into affect, allowing scientists to use established gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR to modify crop and livestock genes for various commercial purposes.
Their previous membership within the European Union meant that Her Majesty’s Government had to adhere to Europe’s strict anti-modification rules.
Rather than introducing “trans-genes” i.e. genetical material from other species, gene-editing, proponents argue it has been done for six-thousand years at least, and that CRISPR is simply an acceleration of the same process of selectively breeding plants and animals.
A plant often accosted by pests and disease, the tomato is one of the few that has had a gene-edited version commercially sold. Marketed by Sanatech Seeds in Japan as the Sicilian Rouge GABA High, the tomato produces higher levels of GABA (gamma aminobutyric-acid) which is thought to reduce stress responses in plants.
Sanatech’s president said that consumers are used to buying products with higher levels of GABA. Though he did not specify why, it could be because we naturally select produce that appears vibrant, rather than produce that is stressed or damaged and may therefore have mushy or dark spots.
Opponents of the UK’s new rules suggest that more resilient plants may lead to more environmentally destructive farming practices, particularly in livestock, where disease resistant animals, or those who may have genetically enhanced growing potential could replicate where industrial agriculture in livestock was 20-30 years ago.
The potential is also there for genetic editing to bestow higher nutrient contents, for example in the altering of root growth patterns to absorb more of certain critical minerals. But again, there are opponents.
The Sustainable Food Trust said in an official statement that GE is an unproven solution to problems which whole food and organic farming systems still have the strong potential to solve, such as nutrient density, disease and pests, and climate resilience — the latter being one of the principal concerns among food scientists in England.
One quite persuasive concern is that after one or two generations, it will be impossible to tell where the modified gene has spread to and which plants have it. Furthermore, as farmers have shown with GMO corn and soya, almost 90% of which in the U.S. is from the same lineage of genetically-modified Monsanto species, they’re likely to pick the GE varieties because of their improved qualities.
This can lead to massive shrinkage of genetic diversity, especially when it comes to heirloom varieties, making the entire species susceptible to collapse. To date, this kind of catastrophe has never happened on a wide scale, though problems with corn rootwood immunity falling away in GMO corn in the U.S., and bananas suffering at the hands of a newish pathogen are beginning to pose threats.
In some cases, biological give and take mechanisms can make certain genetic reactions difficult to ascertain. The most famous example of this is the sickle cell gene that while increasing susceptibility to blood diseases, confers the most robust natural form of malaria defense.
In the case of Jiankui He, who shocked the world when he genetically modified fetuses in China to be resistant to HIV, his work was denounced for this very reason.
Whatever the decision from the Johnson government, It’s likely the debate will rage on.