The British government’s proposed changes to regulations governing gene editing have re-ignited the simmering debate over the value of genetic engineering as a powerful tool for building a resilient, sustainable global food system. You might think that after a decade of often heated discussion on this subject, we would be closer to a consensus on how best to use this extraordinary scientific advancement for the greater good of our people and planet. But as we’ve seen this summer, the debate rages on – and the world’s food system still waits…and waits…and waits.
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This summer, the United Kingdom took the issue of biotechnology and genomics out of the shadows and back into the public limelight. The Tory government introduced legislation that would effectively exempt certain crops and animals from the stringent regulatory constraints currently in force regarding CRISPR.
The U.K.’s action is made possible by its exit from the European Union, where what many consider the draconian regulations severely inhibit the development of new plant and animal genetic advancements. In the E.U., the Genetically Modified Organism Directive issued in 2001 still applies, allowing any of the more than two dozen member states to completely ban the growth of GMO crops or imports of GMO organisms. The University of Dusseldorf’s Sarah Schmidt recently told Science magazine that getting a crop through the E.U.’s regulatory maze “would take years and about $35 million.”
But even outside the E.U. regulatory framework, the proposed U.K. changes to genetic regulation have renewed the same intense opposition. Opponents of the U.K. legislation cite familiar fears of unintended environmental consequences, economic harm to farmers and rural communities, too much market power by commercial interests, lack of transparency to consumers in product labeling, and more.
Genetic optimists hold that despite the clamor, the public opinion pendulum is swinging in what they consider the right direction. Opposition to GMOs remains strongest in Europe, while America and many other countries seem to be moving – at a snail’s pace to many – to recognize and gently embrace the potential within gene editing, CRISPR in particular.
They also point to the willingness of some countries in Africa and other areas most in need of increases in agricultural productivity to consider broader use of GMOs. The threat of imminent food insecurity seems to be a powerful pro-science motivator.
“The advent of new breeding innovations has presented Africa with…innovations [that] will improve the ease, speed, precision, cost and generation time of higher-yielding, superior varieties and breeds with durable resistance to pests, diseases, efficient use of water and nutrients, and adaptable to climate change.”
– Margaret Karembu & Godfrey Ngure, Breaking Barriers with Breeding, ISAAA 2021 Report
GMOs and CRISPR
While GMOs and CRISPR are both gene editing tools, they differ in their technique. GMOs take a gene from one organism and insert it into another organism. CRISPR edits the gene within an organism. CRISPR offers a way to cut and paste genes within a plant or animal to correct flaws or mistakes or improve how the organism functions. It promises to be simpler, cheaper, and faster than other, more radical approaches to wholesale genetic manipulation and monumentally faster and less haphazard than natural selection. It also requires less cumbersome regulation when compared to GMOs.
Perhaps most appealing to many scientists, it seemed to undercut the hyperbolic fears of “Frankenfood” along with social and environmental degradation and general predictions of universal doom and midnight gloom advanced by anti-science critics.
The technique could help speed the development of more and better plants and animals, with specific benefits to the environment and better nutritional offerings. Imagine new and effective treatments for cancer and other devastating illnesses, altering the breeding patterns of disease-spreading mosquitoes, or the use of animals as much-needed organ donors.
To the curious scientific mind, the possibilities seem almost unending.
And all the while, farmers could boost productivity and profitability, while hungry consumers everywhere could reap the benefits of more plentiful and nutritious food. Crops could be developed with characteristics that advance the growth of eco-friendly biofuels and plant-based proteins. Animals could be bred to be more productive, more resistant to disease, and less needy of antibiotics. Farmers could expand production into specific crops and animals important to all sorts of additional uses, including answers to climate change challenges. The highly efficient, productive, responsive, sustainable, resilient global food system everyone from Albania to Zimbabwe most wanted seemed tantalizingly close.
But a decade on, the promise within gene editing still seems more elusive than many would like, especially in global agriculture.
The Philippines last year gained attention when the country approved Golden Rice – a genetically modified rice variety bred to provide additional nutrition, including vitamin A to combat childhood blindness. (Bangladesh also is closely examining the value of allowing Golden Rice to be planted.) At the same time, the Philippine government also approved the use of Bt eggplant for food, feed and processing.
Previous efforts to introduce something this simple prompted violent street protests and burned crops. The intensity of the resistance puzzled many scientists and politicians alike, especially in the Asia region, where rice makes up as much as two-thirds of the daily diet of the average person (and even more among the poor).
The slow pace of adaptation isn’t unique to The Philippines. Gene editing – whether it is GMO or CRISPR – remains the source of animated and often extreme opposition from dedicated cadres of those adamantly opposed to genetically modified organisms in any form. Many environmental groups are at the forefront of opposition, citing fears of unforeseen environmental damages, economic threats to producers, and as yet unrecognized health issues, among other matters.
Many scientists and politicians see rays of sunshine peeking through the gray clouds of doubt and cynicism spun by anti-science factions. Global food and health organizations cite the slow but steady expansion of the roster of nations growing GMO crops.
GMO crops are grown by about 17 million farmers worldwide, mostly in developed countries. Roughly 70 countries import or grow GMOs, and 29 biotech plant crops.
Top GMO crop-producing nations, in descending order, are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. These five industrial countries produce the largest volume of GMO crops.
The remaining are in the developing world. 19 developing nations – where food needs are arguably greatest – now account for 53 percent of the world’s GMO crops.
Find more details on GMO crops around the world here.
The Data Tell the Tale
Advocates also point to the recently updated genetically engineered regulatory standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After a multi-year review process, the USDA in 2020 issued a new rule called SECURE – the Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient rule – that relaxes some of the more onerous requirements of previous regulations, but far from all of them. (There is no indication which took longer – the review of the genetic science, or the creation of the tortured acronym.)
The new regs sought to give greater developmental leeway for organisms with low-risk levels – those where conventional breeding techniques have demonstrated an acceptable level of safety.
While far from perfect for many in the scientific community, the new rule nevertheless reflects a slow movement toward recognition of the potential value of application of responsible genetic science to an evolving global food system.
GMO proponents also cite a recent letter from 110 Nobel laureates and over 3,500 scientists worldwide calling on GMO opponent Ice International to “re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and food improved through biotechnology; recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies; and abandon their campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.”
Britain is…doing something good for the world. It all adds up to a cause for optimism to most people. Our food system is in the midst of an important era of continuing adaptation to meet a more complex and demanding set of expectations.
It’s a lot to ask. But science – as CRISPR and GMOs in general indicate – can help us create the optimal food system. We want our food system to do far more than simply feed us. We want it to sustain and regenerate our environment. We want it to provide food that continues to become safer, more nutritious, and delivered in ever-greater choices that match our changing lifestyle.
We want the food system to be fair to all involved, and transparent for all to see how what they eat is produced, processed, and delivered. We want our food system to fight climate change, not contribute to it.
The Bottom Line
The message from the mainstream scientific and food security communities seems clear: The world increasingly recognizes that the science behind gene editing – supported by facts and data – is sound and offers an incredible opportunity to address some of the most pressing issues and challenges to human health and food security. It’s time for anti-science zealots to become part of the solution rather than a source of the continuing problem.