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Mutagenesis: One way Europeans wish it was 1936 again

The year 1936 wasn’t the greatest for Europe. A black American named Jesse Owens made the Nazis look foolish at the Berlin Olympics, Edward VIII decided he’d rather have an American divorcée than the throne of England and the whole continent couldn’t figure out whether they wanted Spain to be Fascists or Communists.

But apparently the science was pretty good. So good that Europeans prefer their pre-World War II genetic modification to the precise, modern kind.

Mutagenesis is mutating an organism by bombarding it with radiation and chemicals. Plants and animals have been genetically modified due to mutation by radiation all throughout existence, of course, mutation due to radiation is a well-established driver of evolution. But as is well-known, bombarding something with radiation and hoping for the best is a hit-and-miss proposition and it relies heavily on experimentation. It became wildly popular because modern genetic modification was not created for another 40 years – and Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists did not exist to protest science back then.

Today, there are over 2,200 varieties of lettuce, oats and other crops created using that legacy mutation-driven genetic engineering. Yet it was never a cause for protest – and that is why some companies have been reverting to such scarier science of the past in order to circumvent protests against genetically modified foods.

To the European Commission, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism “in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination.” So if a gene for strawberry flavor gets put into a fish, that is a GMO and under the “safeguard clause” France, Germany and others in Europe would block its sale.  What if a laboratory experiment bombards parts of a fish with ionizing radiation and mutagenic chemicals and it suddenly tastes like strawberry? That is instead mutagenesis, and allowed under European law.

The ‘safeguard clause’ means new GMOs can’t be sold into Europe’s largest markets. Monsanto stopped pursuing approval of biotech seeds there but that does not mean “Frankenfood” has stopped. Instead, companies are literally creating new mutant seeds using legacy mutagenesis and they face no more regulation than any amateur tinkerer would face creating their own new strain on a farm.

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Monsanto has given up in Europe but DuPont and BASF are pushing forward and creating new herbicide-resistant crops – they are not legally GMOs so they are exempt, since mutagenesis is considered a “conventional breeding technique”.  By retreating to less-precise mutagenesis, those companies actually have a huge competitive advantage in the $34 billion global seed market. Scientists know that GMOs were created because mutagenesis has far more risks than a precise genetic modification.

Genetically modified foods have yet to cause even a single stomachache while mutagenesis has greater risk of producing an unforeseen detrimental effect than any other breeding technique. Workers who got photodermatitis, a skin condition where people are hyper-sensitive to sunlight, from celery did not get it from a GMO, they got it from a mutagenetic product in the 1980s. That celery is considered ‘organic’ today.

What are the special requirements for approval and use of these new mutant varieties that organic farmers in Europe can use? None, “despite the expectation that mutant varieties may possess and generate more unexpected outcomes … because of the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of non-targeted mutations,” as the National Academy of Sciences notes,

Pre-GMO genetic modification was downright scary, yet food science luddites believe random mutation is superior to creation of a precise trait that cannot possibly express itself in any way other than what science intends.

Anti-GMO people are clearly using “Franken-” as an adjective in the wrong era—Frankenstein was a hybrid, not a GMO.

Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0 and an award-winning science writer who has appeared in numerous publications, from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 he was co-author of the bestselling book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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