Term ‘genetic modification’ loaded with baggage, undermining rational debate

With food security firmly on the international agenda, there’s a growing appetite to look again at the opportunities promised by agricultural biotechnology. Scientists working in this area are excited by new techniques that enable them to edit plant DNA with unprecedented accuracy. Even epigenetic markers, which modulate the activity of genes, can now be altered. The promise is to modify crops to make them more nutritious or resistant to disease.

But there’s a problem, notably in Europe: genetic modification.

Much of agricultural biotechnology – including conventional breeding – involves genetic modification of one kind or another. But “GM” has come to mean something quite specific, and is loaded with baggage. To many people it means risky or unnatural mixing of genes from widely disparate species, even across the plant and animal kingdoms, to create hybrids such as corn with scorpion genes. That baggage now threatens to undermine mature debate about the future of food production.

It is no longer a simple yes/no choice between high-tech agribusiness and conventional production driven by something ill-defined as more “natural”.

Paul Freemont is co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London. He designs organisms from scratch but would be prepared to discontinue projects that the public is unhappy about. He says scientists need an occasional reality check.

“We are going to have to address some of the consequences of what we’re doing, and have agreements about what’s acceptable to society in terms of manipulating biology at this level,” Freemont says.

Society, for its part, will need to listen to the experts with an open mind. And as we work out how to feed an expanding population, we will need to ask questions that are bigger than “GM: yes or no?”

Read the full, original article: Genetic moderation is needed to debate our food future

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