health & science

Is it time to change our mind on GMOs?

Mark Lynas used to steal into fields in the dead of night and destroy genetically modified crops. He has been credited, mistakenly (according to him), for coining the term “frankenfood”.

The former activist is now a supporter of genetically modified food and has written a book: Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs.

Lynas describes his change of heart from an anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) activist to supporter as an enlightenment driven by delving into the science of climate change.

“I spent a lot of time arguing with climate sceptics trying to point out to them the science was very robust.

“The problem was I gradually figured out there was also a worldwide consensus – at least on the safety of GMOs. I couldn’t defend one scientific consensus while denying another and still claim to be doing my job as a science writer.”

In his book he describes his unease at his past stance on GMOs when he started searching for evidence to back up claims he had made as an anti-GMO campaigner.

“To my increasing consternations there was nothing much to support my claim that there had been ‘countless cases’ of GM crops infesting fields or otherwise spreading damaging ‘genetic pollution’.”

Even without proof of danger, the public perception of dangers of GMO food persists.

Lynas told Newsroom he believes Monsanto’s decision to bundle a GMO seed with Roundup was a public relations disaster.

“Everything else has been drowned out by the noise generated in that original sin.

“Evidence now is when it comes to the more toxic pesticides, like insecticides and so on, GMOs have helped to reduce them dramatically. Nobody knows that story because of the big Monsanto Roundup story from the beginning.”

Lynas thinks it is time to let bygones be bygones.

His book, published in April, echoes discussions starting to take place in New Zealand.

As he was retiring from the role of chief science advisor, Peter Gluckman spoke about genetic modification on TVNZ’s Q+A show: “The science is as settled as it will be. That it is safe, there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies.”

“What we need is a conversation which we have not had in a long time and it needs to be more constructive and less polarised than in the past.”

Advances in gene editing have now opened the door to ways to reduce chemical use, increase food production and prepare crops better suited with conditions such as drought.

Big corporations, like Monsanto, are no longer the only players in the space. Governments too are trying to develop disease and pest-resistant crops to help feed hungry citizens.

“The old type of genetic modification was a bit like taking a pamphlet and shoving it between the pages and the book could be about one subject and the pamphlet could be about something completely different.”

New Zealand, however, officially continues to take a “cautious” approach to gene editing technology.

Growing takes place in contained facilities only and any food product containing ingredients which have been genetically modified must be approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), to be as safe as food produced using conventional methods.

Genetic modification, CRISPR and mutagenisis

The method which sparked the “frankenfood” fears of species being mixed together is now not the only method available to breed changes into food in a laboratory.

The new kid on the block is the CRISPR which stands for the unsurprising seldom-used full name: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

CRISPR allows for highly-targeted gene editing, allowing a gene to be disabled, or inserted, in a specific place. Changes can be made to DNA without the need to introduce genes from a different species.

Former Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston has handy analogies to describe the way genetics can be altered with some techniques currently available.

Rolleston suggests thinking of the genetic code as a book.

“The old type of genetic modification was a bit like taking a pamphlet and shoving it between the pages and the book could be about one subject and the pamphlet could be about something completely different.”

Technology such as CRISPR is “more like using find and replace on your computer so you can change the exact letter in the exact word in the exact paragraph on the exact page that you want to”.

CRISPR can turn off parts of DNA so the genetics of a plant or animal can be made different without the need to introduce DNA from a different animal.

There are similarities between what CRISPR can do and selective breeding. To breed desirable traits in a species plants or animals are bred over and over again for many generations. CRISPR can select a trait and dramatically speed up the process.

The other current method of breeding is mutagenesis. This is legal and unregulated and used for many crops including crops sold as organic crops.

Seeds are treated with radiation or chemicals to create mutations. Thousands of mutations may occur, and breeders will select the mutations which have desirable traits to then grow and breed from.

Using the book analogy Rolleston describes mutagenesis as: “A bit like giving your three-year-old a crayon and a book and leaving them there for a couple of hours to make completely random changes in the book. And then you want to see if it readable or not.”

Technology such as CRISPR offer breeders the ability to target a specific quality and change it in one generation. Rolleston worries if New Zealand foregoes the technology it will also forego the benefits.

“The risk is that this technology is cheap and accessible and precise and quick. In terms of productivity and positive environmental outcomes we’ll get left behind.”

“We mustn’t stop the research that is required so that either we understand what routes we need to take if these technologies are approved, or what opportunities we are turning our backs on if the technology isn’t approved.”

What New Zealand has to lose

University of Otago professor Peter Dearden also worries about the risk of getting left behind.

“New Zealand’s place in the world depends on our milk production and I could see through gene editing there’s a really good chance people would leapfrog the advantages we have which are based on breeding and genetics since about 1950.”

He sees there’s an opportunity for gene editing to be allowed while still keeping New Zealand’s clean green image, especially if gene editing was used to find ways to improve environmental outcomes such as cattle’s impact on waterways - or climate change

“The synthetic meat market, that’s really going to hit us hard unless we find ways to reduce the environmental impact of the farming that we do. That’s going to be tricky, but I don’t believe we can do that without using all the tools at our disposal.”

Dearden worries the current public perception of gene editing has had a “chilling” effect on science. He’s keen for research to continue while the public and policy-makers have conversations about the technology.

“We mustn’t stop the research that is required so that either we understand what routes we need to take if these technologies are approved, or what opportunities we are turning our backs on if the technology isn’t approved.”

“Look at the product, see if it’s fit for purpose and it’s safe and the benefit. If that’s the case, then does it matter necessarily what tool was used to produce it?”

Public policy

Policy-makers around the world have taken varying stances on CRISPR.

In the US it’s not regulated. Gene editing which doesn’t involve adding foreign DNA isn’t classed at genetic modification.

In July the European Union’s highest court ruled gene edited-crops using techniques such as CRISPR are considered genetic modification and are subject to the same rules. Crops created using irradiation for mutagenesis escaped the directive. The ruling said mutagenesis has “conventionally been used in a number of applications and have a long safety record [and] are exempt from those obligations”.

In New Zealand the conversation is starting with a review being conducted by FSANZ about whether food products entering the country using new breeding techniques such as CRISPR should be treated the same as GMOs.

Some GMOs are already approved for sale in New Zealand. These have undergone a pre-market FSANZ safety assessment and have been deemed to be as safe as similar food products which aren’t genetically modified. The review questions whether the risk from foods created with newer techniques justifies the same safety checks.

Dearden thinks FSANZ is taking the right approach to the discussion.

“Look at the product, see if it’s fit for purpose and it’s safe and the benefit. If that’s the case, then does it matter necessarily what tool was used to produce it?”

The argument regarding the product rather than the process by which it was made is one which crops up in submissions FSANZ’s review.

University of Canterbury’s professor Jack Heinemann has a different viewpoint.

He doesn't agree CRISPR is vastly different from older techniques of genetic modification.

"It is irrelevant to me that some of these techniques don’t involve the use of insertion of new pieces of DNA. Cynically one could say this is how practitioners have oversimplified social rejection, or social sceptism of the products.

“If you look at the EU ruling that came out in the last couple of weeks they’ve gone back to the fundamentals. They have said this is why, this is how we define things that are genetically modified, and this is how the definition applies even to these types of techniques.”

Following the EU’s position on genetic editing and classing all genetically edited food as GMOs could lead to easier trade with the EU he said.

"Africa generally follows Europe, so do big parts of Asia, thus if we want to maximise trade harmony, we would align with those kinds of regulatory models."

Personally he finds genetic editing techniques to be scientifically fascinating and doesn't think everything they are used on would have an adverse effect, however, as a scientist who works in the public sector he believes part of his role is to challenge "powerful concentrated political and financial institutions and individuals".

"I'm not going to be giving extra airtime to voices that can already buy their own airtime. My purpose is to contribute to the public getting the information they deserve to make their own evaluations on whether they want these technologies and products."

He said as science is still learning about biochemistry behind the techniques it's not unreasonable to require regulation. 

"There’s has been talk for decades about adopting a more product-based approach. I have really never seen much in the way of proposals as to how product-based regulation would work as effectively as process based."

Enforcing a safety assessment based on the process by which a product was made has, in his opinion, been successful.

"Among the very few actual varieties of GMO in our food, there’s still not conclusive evidence that one causes an adverse effect, although there is growing evidence that some might, we don’t have conclusive evidence that they do – yet. 

Heinemann would like to see a change in the current system, including looking at different ways to gather evidence. One option he mentioned was a pharmaceutical and medical model aimed at improving transparency where results of studies must be published regardless of whether results for efficacy or safety are positive or negative. 

He thinks there are other ways to improve the current system to build public confidence.

"We've gone to such an extreme user pays model. On the one hand we say if you are going to profit from these things you should pay for the safety testing, but we flawed that by saying you should also be in control of the safety testing."

The FSANZ plans to release a final report, which will include recommendations, early in 2019.

Future food

Lynas is frustrated that discussions about gene edited food have often been dominated by anti-GMO activists who he feels have a blanket issue with the technology and are not objectively judging products based on their risks and benefits.

From pest-resistant aubergine in Bangladesh - owned and developed largely in the public sector - to virus-resistant cassava and wilt-resistant bananas in Africa, he sees the anti-GMO message stopping food from reaching poor farmers.

In Uganda, a radio advert from the charity ActionAid was broadcast saying GMOs cause cancer and infertility. In his book he recounts incidents where anti-GMO activists said genetically edited corn could cause homosexuality.

In the case of the pest-resistant aubergine, which drastically reduced local farmers' use of insecticides, he was told rumours had been spread saying the genetically edited vegetables were poisonous and could even cause paralysis in children.

In a warming world where temperature change could bring new challenges to growing food, he thinks genetic editing will be as essential as working to curb emissions.

Lynas warns against adopting a genetically edited-free New Zealand policy which he said would show New Zealand has embraced pseudo science.

“It shows there is something wrong with your policy process that ignores worldwide scientific evidence in favour of a public relations campaign.

“If that’s what New Zealand wants to project to the world then good luck to you.”

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