Splice of life

Think tank: Adam Smith Institute

Author(s): Cameron English

December 9, 2021

This report from UK think tank the Adam Smith Institute looks at the case for GMOs and gene editing.

This latest paper, by Cameron English, Director of Bio-Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), outlines how the UK can benefit from embracing gene editing and GMOs: Genetic engineering allows farmers to produce larger and more nutritious yields that are resistant to pests and disease. This results in more profitable farms and lower cost to consumers, along with environmental benefits like less chemical pesticide, water and land use, protecting biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions. GMOs save global consumers up to $24 billion per year, while the UK farming industry has lost £1.7 billion due to GMO ban since 1996. GMOs have led to a 8.6 percent decrease in global pesticide use, representing roughly 800 million fewer kilograms of insecticides and herbicides — a 19 percent reduction in the environmental impact of pesticide use since 1996. Between 1996 to 2018, GMOs are responsible for 34.2 million kilograms less of carbon dioxide.

Genetically engineered (GE) organisms can refer to both genetically modified organism (GMO) varieties, that means moving genetic material between different species, and new breeding techniques (NBTs) including CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, that generally aims to change an organism’s existing DNA. GMOs are safe for human consumption and help promote sustainable agriculture. More than 2,000 studies have confirmed that approved GMO crops pose no greater threat to human health or the environment than plants produced through other breeding methods. New breeding techniques, like CRISPR gene editing, are also very safe. They pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than non-GE counterparts. Unlike GMOs, organisms developed through NBTs (like CRISPR) generally do not contain genetic material from other species. In fact, traditional breeding methods induce far more mutations than any new breeding technique.

There is a near-universal prohibition of genetic engineering across the European Union based on the ‘precautionary principle’. Hypocritically, the EU still imports around 30 million metric tons of soybean and soybean meal annually, 90-95% of which is GMO. The UK adopted these policies as a member of the bloc, yet now has the opportunity to diverge. The UK Government is intending to reform regulations. Boris Johnson, in his first speech as prime minister in 2019, promised to “liberate the U.K.’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti–genetic modification rules.” In September 2021, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced plans to “ease burdens for research and development involving plants, using technologies such as gene editing”. However, this would only apply to agriculture, and not gene editing in animals or change the approach to GMO varieties.

The different treatment is inconsistent with the scientific evidence. If the UK Government wants to follow the scientific evidence and ‘liberate’ the UK’s bioscience sector, they must GMO regulatory framework and gene editing in animals: The ideal biotech regulatory framework is a case-by-case risk assessment that evaluates each novel organism based on the harms they may pose to humans and the environment, regardless of how they were developed. The organism’s characteristics and intended use would determine the degree of scrutiny applied by regulators.