Smart breeding tools, or hidden GM?

January 2016

The major GM issue for 2016 is certainly going to be the 'New Breeding Techniques' (NBTs) now pouring out of labs.  These are designed to impose "deeper and more complex changes in the genetic makeup and metabolic pathways of living organisms" than good, old-fashioned genetic modification [Steinbrecher]. 

'NBT' is a catch-all phrase for a plethora of molecular spanners, nuts and bolts to change life.  They are described by names and abbreviations which wouldn't immediately suggest GM, even the ones which are, in fact, just new versions of the old (see below).

Examples of New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) - note that this list may have grown by the time you read it:
  1. Zinc Finger Nuclease Technologies (three variations) ZNF-1, ZNF-2, ZNF-3
  2. TALENs
  3. Meganucleases
  4. CRISPR/Cas
  5. CRISPR/Cas9
  6. Oligonucleotide Directed Mutagenesis (ODM)
  7. Rapid Trait Development Systems (RTDS) - a kind of ODM
    1-7 are all methods of making precise changes in the DNA; CRISPR/Cas uses DNA to infiltrate the cell while CRISPR/Cas9 uses a solvent.
  8. Cisgenesis
  9. Intragenesis
    8-9 are just GM using genes from the species being transformed
  10. RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM)
    This is a method for silencing a specific gene for a few generations
  11. Grafting
    This is 'new' because it means grafting a non-GM plant onto a GM rootstock.
  12. Reverse Breeding (RB)
    This is a way of preventing normal gene exchange during reproduction.
  13. Agro-infiltration
  14. Agro-infection
    13-14 are transient, single-generation, gene transfers; the first is localised and the second spread throughout the whole plant
  15. Synthetic genomics
    This reconstructs genomes, and seems to include old GM.
    For more on NBTs see [1,2]

If you're wondering what this obviously very diverse range of techniques have in common, here are a few example answers.
  • Most New Breeding Techniques are 'new', except for the ones which are just variations on the old GM.
  • None of them are actually 'breeding', although some sort of breeding will usually be necessary before or after the 'new' bit to create the desired organism.
  • All of them involve the application of a technique conceived by a human, contrived by a human, and enacted by a human.
  • All of them, being 'new' and a 'technique', are patentable
  • All of them are potentially profitable.
  • All of them involve invasive manipulation of the genome.
  • All of them are capable of causing unpredictable co-lateral disruption of the wider genomic processes and of the physiology, and are therefore risky.
    (In NBT example '11', the graft may not be GM, but unpredicted substances or microbes may leak from the GM root up into the bits of the non-GM graft you're going to eat)
  • Their inventors are trying very hard to pass their products off as 'non-GM' to avoid the regulatory processes.

The European Commission may still be deliberating what is or is not GM [3], but US company CIBUS has blithely declared its NBT product a non-transgenic, non-GM "all-natural, environmentally safe" "smart breeding tool" "that helps farmers grow plants that produce desired effects". The method that's so natural is RTDS ('7' in the Box), and may have a lot of undesired side-effects just like all the other methods. CIBUS' hype has managed to persuade some European governments to move to field trials. After secret talks, the UK and Sweden have already allowed trials of gene-edited oilseed rape. Oilseed rape is notoriously difficult to contain. 


Tell your MEP that all products of NBTs are clearly genetically modified and MUST be required to undergo full GM safety assessment and be labelled.


[2]  GENETICALLY EDITED - October 2014

[3]   EU STRUGGLING WITH GEdOs - February 2015


  • Background [1] above
  • Beware the Changing Face of Genetic Modification, Institute of Science in Society Report 2.09.13
  • David Cyranoski, CRISPR tweak may help gene-edited crops bypass biosafety regulation, Nature 19.10.15
  • Rapid Trait Development System
  • Secret deal to exempt "hidden GM" oilseed rape from European GMO regulations, GM Watch 4.11.15
  • Revealed: The deal between the German food safety authority (BVL) and the biotech industry on CIBUS oilseed rape - Decision-making behind closed doors, Testbiotech, 3.11.15

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. All comments are moderated before they are published.