Court opinion on NBTs

April 2018

Just to add fuel to the fire of how to define 'new breeding techniques' in a way useful to their regulation or non-regulation [1], the European Court of Justice published a preliminary Opinion at the beginning of the year.

The Court was asked to clarify the scope of GMO Directive 2001 which was put in place before the plethora of new breeding techniques had emerged, plus the validity of the Directive's 'mutagensis exemption'. This exemption was designed to exclude from GM regulation the old fashioned random mutagenic techniques such as the use of radiation and toxins to induce DNA damage, probably because it would be a regulatory nightmare to treat the outcomes of old-fashioned random mutagenesis as GMOs after decades of use. Thus, at the time the Directive was drawn up, only those plant and animal breeding methods considered to have a long safety record were exempted. However, now that we have targeted mutagensis (gene editing techniques), the 2001 Directive has become blurry on the subject.

CRISPR has in-built imprecision

April 2018

It seems the 'CRISPR' gene editing tool, hyped as so precise in its action that all previous concerns about GM side-effects could be swept aside, is not all it's cracked up to be [1].

In reality, man-made CRISPR constructs can roam around the genome snipping sections of DNA you really don't want to damage. Such so-called 'off-target' effects can disable a vital gene completely or impair its functioning, and the outcome can be dire.

Wishful biotech industry thinkers built CRISPR constructs with nucleic acid sequences* designed to bind to, and cut, specific bits of DNA. But in reality they can recognise, bind to, and cut bits of DNA which are simply similar. Scientists are beginning to realise that the nucleic acid sequence is only a part of CRISPR's ability to recognise its target.

It turns out that, besides homing in on perfectly matching target DNA, CRISPR can take stock of the nature, number and position of any nucleic acid mis-matches, and conformational changes in the CRISPR molecule are also involved.

A soya model NOT to follow

April 2018

Argentina's 'modelo sojero', once promoted as a shining economic example for others to follow, seems instead to have led straight to the social disaster many predicted.

The 'modelo sojero' [1] is based on a move to high-tech monocultures of a few commodity crops (in this case mainly GM soya, a lot of wheat and GM maize) produced for export markets and for growing the country's GDP. Boosted by extreme free-trade, light-touch regulations and privatisation, the model channels the cash flowing in from far-off lands into state hand-outs to reduce poverty.

Pesticide divorce proceedings

April 2018
Protest against pesticides in Paris 2016
Photo Creative Commons
The EU's biggest grain grower, grain exporter and food producer, France, has been leading the way in healthy food and farming for the last decade.

France was one of the first Member States to 'opt out' of growing GM crops in 2015 (see Note below).

The following year, a ban on pesticide use in public green spaces was announced by the French government, plus a prohibition on over-the-counter sales of pesticides to non-professional gardeners. From 2019, pesticide use will be prohibited in private gardens also.

'Bt' and kidney disease

April 2018

The EU probably has the most detailed, carefully drafted and thought-out GM regulations in the world. All Member States can give their opinion during the GM approval process, and the precautionary principle underlies it.

New biotech crops on the market come stacked with multiple artificial genes*. In such cases, even if the 'parent' single-trait crops have already been accepted, the EU quite rightly considers the crop to be a new GM organism needing its own regulatory approval.

How the EU system works in practice, however, is less impressive.

Scientific dysfunctional advice mechanism

April 2018

The European Commission (EC) is clearly struggling with the wealth of novel genome tweaking techniques streaming out of the laboratory.

Problem No.1 is finding a collective name for what it's trying to regulate. 'New breeding techniques' seems to be favoured despite the notable presence of manufacturing and absence of procreation in the techniques themselves [1]. Some new breeding techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9 [2], are referred to as gene- or genome-editing giving them an aura of minor and precise correction. Concerned scientists and green organisations have no hesitation in calling them what they are: new GM techniques producing new GMOs which have much the same uncertainties, risks and potential for indirect negative impacts as the old kind.