The issue has flared in recent years with advent of CRISPR and other gene-editing tools that are being tentatively embraced by countries around the world. The EU all but bans them as well. In a controversial 2018 decision, the European Court of Justice invoked the “precautionary principle,” which has guided EU policy on agriculture and chemical usage for decades, in deciding to apply the 2001 GMO moratorium to all gene-edited crops.
Many scientists across Europe have decried the ban, but the political will to modify it is not yet there. Post-Brexit, the UK is reconsidering many of its policy stances, including its crop gene-editing rules. Debate surrounding the issue intensified in recent months with the close of the government’s consultation on whether to relax some of the regulations that could harmonize Britain’s policies with many other countries around the world, which for the most part only lightly regulate gene editing. Its proponents maintain that gene editing is much the same as traditional breeding techniques that have been used in farming for centuries to improve output — with the main difference being that the new technology is safer and much faster because it enables laser-like precision that wasn’t previously possible.
Environmental group opposition
Anti-GMO groups have long opposed transgenic GMOs, derisively labeling them ‘Frakenfoods’ because the genetically engineered seeds were developed by moving one or more genes from one species to another to create the desired traits. There was some hope in the broader science community that environmental activists would be more open to CRISPR as it is mostly cisgenic; it usually does not involve moving ‘foreign’ genes. And in fact, some environmentalists have been open to the gene-editing revolution in agriculture. But for the most part, the traditional alliance of anti-biotechnology advocates has dug in its rhetorical heels, emphasizing that extensive crop gene-editing rules modeled after Europe’s GMO restrictions are necessary to protect public health and the environment.
Most agricultural scientists, in contrast, stress that gene editing is a powerful but reasonably well understood technology that will help the UK agriculture sector keep up with its global competitors. A tiny but growing number of organic farmers, although skeptical of the big biotech firms that develop many gene-edited crops, has sought to encourage a compromise, claiming the technology itself should not automatically be banned so long as it doesn’t facilitate more corporate control of the food supply.
With the debate ongoing in Britain, the various factions met in a spirited March 26 discussion hosted by the Sustainable Food Trust. It featured Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); two long-time GMO opponents in King’s College geneticist Michael Antoniou and Lawrence Woodward, director of Beyond GM and Whole Health Agriculture; and UK organic farmer Guy Singh-Watson. On display was a clear tension between the UK’s desire to boost its farming sector with the latest genetic engineering tools and concern that crop gene editing may be too disruptive and ultimately undesirable.
How do these various viewpoints conform to the evidence? Let’s take a look.
The UK’s case for crop gene editing
Gideon Henderson initiated the discussion with a defense of gene editing that would resonate with most scientists and many farmers. He stressed the broad science consensus that the technology is effectively identical to traditional plant breeding, though far more precise, and poised to provide a variety of important benefits, including increased crop yields and reduced chemical use. While he acknowledged that gene editing could carry some risks, he noted that UK regulators have the tools they need to ensure safe use of the technology.
Disputes over genetic engineering often center around an ominous, Jurassic Park-inspired question: aren’t we playing God by manipulating the DNA of plants and animals we eat? This discussion proved to be no exception when Sustainable Food Trust CEO and moderator Patrick Holden asked Henderson if there was a certain “hubris” built into his claim that we could safely apply gene-editing technology we don’t really understand.
Echoing his previous comments, Henderson replied that gene editing just allows breeders to select for traits that make crops more desirable, a practice that goes back to the birth of agriculture. He also challenged the idea that CRISPR and similar techniques would lead to a narrowing of genetic diversity in plants, another concern widely amplified by some biotech skeptics. The push to engineer a relative handful of traits into production crops may help boost yields, but it comes at the expense of native landrace varieties that “have been overlooked and forgotten,” Sustainable Food Trust has alleged. The concern is not without merit. For example, so-called “orphan crops” that serve as staple foods in Africa have been largely ignored by big seed companies that cater to farmers in developed countries.
That said, gene editing doesn’t contribute to this trend; in some cases it has even helped reverse it by allowing scientists to enhance these landrace varieties for cultivation where they are most needed. But as GLP’s Nigeria correspondent Uchechi Moses explained in May 2020, activist opposition may be one of the primary reasons this research doesn’t move forward:
As is often the case with food and agricultural issues, the challenges holding back investment in nutritious orphan crops are not technical, but political and social. Gene editing can be used to enhance these culturally important plants, and dozens are now the focus of breeding programs utilizing a variety of breeding techniques. However …. activist opposition to advances in biotechnology continue to present roadblocks all over the world. If these obstacles can be surmounted, Africa can move much closer to feeding itself in the coming decades.
CRISPR crops: Just more GMOs?
Antoniou would have none of this. The controversial UK scientist repeated the entrenched anti-biotechnology position articulated in a 2015 document he and more than 300 other scientists and activists opposed to genetic engineering in food signed, “No Scientific Consensus on GMO safety.” The paper maintained that “Claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate” and “There is no consensus on the environmental risks of GM crops.” In fact, more than 275 science-based agencies around the world, from the European Union to the National Academy of Sciences to the World Health Organization, have issued reports claiming genetic engineering is safe and poses no unique health or environmental risks.
Alleging that Henderson downplayed the difficulties with gene editing, Antoniou aired a number of “technical and conceptual concerns” with the technology. Gene editing, he said, bears “no resemblance to natural breeding,” any claim to the contrary is not based on experimental evidence. He also argued that “gene editing can result in major, unintended damage to DNA.” There are multiple steps involved in breeding gene-edited crops; unpredictable mutations can occur at any one of them. And even the intended (or “on-target”) edits can be dangerous. There’s no guarantee that gene editing can live up to its promise, Antoniou warned, but lots of evidence that it will fail, citing the difficulty of engineering complex traits controlled by multiple genes. And of course, nobody will know that their food was produced via gene editing.
For all these reasons, he concluded, the government should “keep it regulated, [and] acknowledge that you’re creating GMOs.” Interestingly, Antoniou was careful to explain that his objections to crop gene editing did not extend to biomedical applications of the same technology, because they are not released into the environment.
Again echoing the broader science community, Gideon responded that you actually get fewer off-target mutations with gene editing than you do with earlier forms of mutagenesis, or traditional plant breeding. As a 2019 study published in Nature explained:
CRISPR-Cas9 is remarkably specific and efficient at generating on-target genome edits . While CRISPR-Cas9 has the potential to generate off-target cutting in genomic sites that are substantially similar to the target site, off-target edits are likely to be negligible in the background of existing natural variation and continuous unintended changes being generated during the plant breeding process.
The DEFRA chief scientist also called out Antoniou’s double standard on biomedical gene editing. Why, to use my favorite example, is it acceptable to treat blindness by injecting a harmless virus carrying the instructions to produce CRISPR-Cas9 directly into a patient’s eye, but out of bounds to breed corn with more kernels on it? If it’s risky to release gene-edited plants into the environment, then surely it’s simply out of the question to edit the genetics of a living human being, or produce COVID-19 vaccines using genetic engineering. The fact that Antoniou isn’t consistent on this point is very revealing, and Henderson pressed him on the point by arguing that the same technology should be used in agriculture, it just needs to be carefully and continually studied, an observation everyone involved agrees with.
Henderson added that the UK isn’t making this decision in a vacuum. Dozens of countries are utilizing agricultural gene editing (one of the chief concerns motivating the UK’s interest in the technology), and the experience of the US is a particularly good case study, since we’re pursuing all sorts of impressive gene-editing research. “The potential has been achieved in many areas,” the DEFRA scientist argued. He reiterated in closing that gene editing has broad, though admittedly not universal, support among farmers, and that the UK has novel food and environmental regulations that will absolutely apply to gene-edited crops, because safety and transparency are paramount.
A defensible middle ground?
Is there a possible halfway mark between Henderson’s and Antoniou’s positions? That’s the stance organic farmer Guy Singh-Watson tried to carve out during the discussion, a point of view that appears to be growing more common in the agricultural community, even among some organic farmers. Over the years, Singh-Watson grew uncomfortable with both sides of the genetic engineering debate, which have a tendency to think in absolutes and demonize each other, he said.
Although the benefits of GMOs haven’t materialized—he claimed they haven’t boosted yields or reduced pesticide use—Singh-Watson said he doesn’t doesn’t buy Antoniou’s “unnatural” argument against gene editing, since it could be made against many technologies in wide use today. He remains concerned about how gene-edited crops could impact agriculture, but isn’t universally opposed to them. He noted, for example, that he would sell a gene-edited, blight-resistant potato if he was allowed to and could grow it organically. “I would feel pretty comfortable with that.”
There was a lot of truth in Singh-Watson’s comments. Organic and conventional growers are not at each other’s throats in the real world; the assumption that they are is a myth perpetuated by a handful of environmental and industry groups that endorse an “organic at all costs” ideology. In fact, it’s not uncommon for farmers to grow conventional and organic crops.
It’s also true that genetically engineered plants can be grown “organically.” Most definitions of organic agriculture stress the need to grow food while preserving soil health and protecting biodiversity, and many transgenic (GMO) and gene-edited crops have been developed with these concerns in mind. “By incorporating GM technology into organic agriculture,” a team of Purdue University researchers recently argued, “biodiversity and soil quality could be maintained, while increasing product yield through rapid selection.” This observation undermines Singh-Watson’s assertion that transgenics haven’t increased yields or reduced pesticide use, which is also contradicted by a wealth of research.
Corporate control of food?
The other strong biotechnology opponent, Lawrence Woodward, director of Beyond GM and Whole Health Agriculture, maintained that CRISPR is not actually banned in EU and UK agriculture, just heavily regulated. This is technically true but misleading. Gene-edited plants are regulated just like GMOs in Europe (though this could change in the coming months), and it’s all but impossible to get new biotech crops approved for cultivation. This is no exaggeration considering that only a single transgenic variety, insect-resistant corn, is grown in Europe today.
What’s really at stake, Woodward insisted, is complete deregulation of gene editing. Treating a potentially transformative or disruptive technology so liberally would make little sense, he said. Though besides reiterating Antoniou’s earlier allegations, Woodward offered little justification for tightly regulating crop gene editing. He was likewise dismissive of the claim that the technology could promote sustainability, “whatever that means.”
Woodward’s final reason for opposing crop gene editing was that it could promote “more corporate control” of the food system. But as we alluded to earlier, the insistence that genetic engineering be regulated as if it were a “weapon of mass destruction” is precisely why big biotech firms dominate the seed industry today. Smaller startups and universities simply don’t have the resources to jump through tens of millions of dollars worth of regulatory hoops to win approval for their products.
In nations that have streamlined the approval process, the dynamic is shifting and real competition is being injected into the seed market. A desire to break up corporate control of the food system is another reason why the UK (or any other jurisdiction for that matter) needs to regulate gene editing with a light touch instead of an iron fist.