Techno fixing domestic crops

August 2015
Photo from Creative Commons
A paper has been published proposing that biotech tools for 'precision mutagenesis' [1] could be used to improve the genetic diversity of our crops by 're-wilding' them.

The idea is that the genes for drought-, pest-, and disease-resistance present in the wild ancestors of our crop plants, but mutated to ineffective forms accidentally perpetuated during domestication, could be identified and edited back to their 'wild' form.

What the paper examines, in a totally theoretical way, is whether this idea is legally, socially, economically and ethically feasible.

Its conclusion is that with continuous input regarding legal, social, economic and ethical aspects, 're-wilding' may provide a more "acceptable route to reaping the benefits of plant biotechnology".

The expertise of the team which produced this proposal lies in food economics, plant science and media studies plus law and pharmacology. Its understanding of genomics is restricted to the simplistic biotech industry concept of life-processes emerging from a collection of randomly-formed and randomly changing genes operating independently.

Questions of biological feasibility are conveniently ignored, although it is slipped in as an assumed reality in a diagram summarising the proposed scheme.

The usual twisted biotech assertion that 'no evidence' means 'evidence of no harm' is used to treat the GM issue as one of public attitude. Questions of safety, which would clearly impact catastrophically on all attempts to support GM 're-wilding' despite continuous attention to legal, social, economic and ethical matters, are not factored in. 

The answer to concerns about GM lie, it seems, in manipulating attitudes while passing off increased GM as a means to make crop plants somehow more wild and therefore somehow more natural.

Loss of genetic diversity is recognised by these (and many other) authors as an underlying weakness in modern agriculture. However, using technical tricks to artificially 're-instate' diversity sounds like a recipe for spiralling incoherent functioning of the genome: this 'cure' more likely to make the modern crop vulnerability to environmental stresses worse.

The paper does, however, present some interesting points about attitudes to GM 'the brand', and about the effects of the level of knowledge on acceptance of GM food.

There is the consistent evidence that people expect to pay less for GM. This has been successfully used in America to block labelling legislation. Price differences to date have been maintained by US subsidies for all the major GM crops. These have depressed world prices for GM maize and soya, while the non-GM versions now have a 'rarity' value. The real price of GM food isn't low, and commercial interests dictate that it probably never can be.

At the end of the day, no matter how many rational and science-based safety concerns are voiced or proven, it is the unfulfilled expectations of 'cheap' food that could be the downfall of GM. 

Another point is the decades-long, apparently unquenchable assumption that providing more information leads to higher levels of knowledge, leading in turn to greater acceptance of GM. 

The hard facts are that people who consider themselves well-informed about GM have a higher acceptance, but when actual levels of knowledge are tested, there's no link. Oddly, the authors of the study haven't noticed that they fall into the category of those who think they're well-informed: their 'knowledge' of GM seems to come undiluted from the biotech industry, and the bases of their reasons for acceptance and dismissal of concerns are therefore highly questionable.

A third point is the idea that their 're-wilding' proposal might somehow be "less controversial".

As the authors point out, expert genetic engineers' estimates of the layman's view have, historically, been wrong. Why the layman should be fooled into thinking a man-made device for making precise human-driven mutations will have any fewer unpredictable effects on the wider genome than random human-driven mutations isn't clear.


Don't be fooled: human molecular manipulation of DNA is GM and carries risks, no matter what it’s called or how it's achieved.


[1] GENETICALLY EDITED - October 2014

  • Michael G. Palmgren, et al., 2015, Are we ready for back-to-nature crop breeding, Trends in Plant Sciences 20:3

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