Natural excuses to avoid GM safety testing

March 2019

The biotech lobby is coming up with all sorts of fancy arguments to avoid regulation of new DNA-altering techniques which don't involve the insertion of novel genes (protein-coding DNA) into an organism.

Industry-led claims abound that small mutations are naturally present in all organisms, as is the presence of horizontal gene transfer between organisms. The story continues to say that because it is equivalent to 'natural', edited DNA is nothing to worry about. It goes on: organisms arising from intentional DNA-editing are similar to those produced by old, random mutagenesis techniques (such as irradiation). Since the latter have never been regulated, there's no reason to do so with the 'new' version. Moreover, DNA-edited organisms are so 'natural' that their identification is impossible and they are, therefore, untraceable, making regulation impossible to enforce. And, even if the changes are found, no one can tell if the mutation is a result of a natural DNA mutation or a deliberate one. In fact, in our Environment Secretary's view, since Mother Nature is already giving us genetic mutations and horizontal gene transfer, biotech scientists are merely giving Her a helping hand.

All this 'reasoning', however, seems to be more to do with commercial expediency than with science.

Mutations are very rare in a healthy organism absent a toxic environment, and healthy, living cells have a host of mechanisms to correct DNA changes arising.

Many of our staple foods are, indeed, the product of historical mutagenesis applications. They were never tested for safety, and our modern, constantly rising levels of chronic disease might make you question if, perhaps, they should have been.

Horizontal gene transfer is extremely rare, except in bacteria. As a life-form, bacteria are, individually and in totality, very different from the higher organisms which form our food.

COMMENT Interestingly, there are signs that bacteria choose which genes they absorb from their environment and which they lose when the gene becomes surplus to requirements. This begs the question, can higher organisms (unforced by genetic engineer's gene guns, GM pathogens and physical disruption) also choose their mutations?

The oft-repeated notion that DNA-edits can't be identified can be given a sound scientific argument.

There are well-established techniques especially in GMO testing laboratories which can detect DNA modifications ranging from a single 'nucleic acid' DNA base unit to the largest insertion of a DNA sequence. Enough information will be available within the patents and approval applications to design the tests.

Where the GMO is no longer 'pure' (or is illegal), a matrix approach can be used to establish its
heredity. This is possible because the multiple stresses imposed by the DNA-altering procedures [1] all leave detectable scars in the form of mutations in the genome and epigenome (the DNA-associated biochemistry). For example, gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 [2] home-in on very specific DNA recognition sites, so that the mutation they induce will always be nearby.


Avoiding regulation avoids safety testing, time and expense for industry. It also puts you and your environment at risk.

It took the horrifying death by suicide of a young teenager to make social media bosses admit they have been so focused on the "good" promised by their product and creating "value" for the people using it, that they neglected the risks. Support is mounting for these companies to have a statutory duty of care to keep people safe. The only real question remaining is whether ministers have the will to draft the necessary legislation and get it on the statute book.

How about campaigning for a statutory duty of care for producers of DNA-altered foods to keep consumers of their products safe?


[2] CRISPR/Cas9 GENE EDITING - March 2016

  • Sarah Z. Agapito-Tenfen, et al., December 2018, Revisiting Risk Governance of GM Plants: The Need to Consider New and Emerging Gene-Editing Techniques, Frontiers in Plant Science 9
  • Experts agree: New GMOs can be detected, GM Watch, 2.01.19
  • Charles Hymas, Instagram boss: duty of care can save lives, Daily Telegraph, 8.02.18
  • Charles Hymas, Duty of care 'must carry criminal sanctions', Daily Telegraph, 12.02.18
  • Oxford Farming Conference 2019 address by the Environment Secretary, DEFRA, 3.01.19
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