In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (Case C-528/16) ruled that organisms obtained by directed mutagenesis techniques are to be regarded as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within the meaning of Directive 2001/18. The ruling marked the next round of the dispute around agricultural genetic engineering in Europe. Many of the pros and cons presented in this dispute are familiar from the debate around the first generation of genetic engineering techniques. The current wave of enthusiasm for the new genetic engineering methods, with its claim to make good on the failed promises of the previous wave, seems to point more to an admission of failure of the last generation of genetic engineering than to a true change of paradigm. Regulation is being portrayed as a ban on research and use, which is factually incorrect, and the judges of the European Court of Justice are being defamed as espousing “pseudoscience”. Furthermore, this highly polarised position dominates the media reporting of the new techniques and the court’s ruling. Advocates of the new genetic engineering techniques appear to believe that their benefits are so clear that furnishing reliable scientific evidence is unnecessary. Meanwhile, critics who believe that the institution of science is in a serious crisis are on the increase not just due to the cases of obvious documented scientific misconduct by companies and scientists, but also due to the approach of dividing the world into those categorically for or against genetic engineering. In this construct of irreconcilable opposites, differentiations fall by the wayside. This article is a response to this one-sided and biased reporting, which often has the appearance of spin and lacks journalistic ethics that require journalists to report on different positions in a balanced and factual manner instead of taking positions and becoming undeclared advocates themselves.
The human population is growing, and as a result we need to produce more food whilst reducing the impact of farming on the environment. Selective breeding and genomic selection have had a transformational impact on livestock productivity, and now transgenic and genome-editing technologies offer exciting opportunities for the production of fitter, healthier and more-productive livestock. Here, we review recent progress in the application of genome editing to farmed animal species and discuss the potential impact on our ability to produce food.
Many technologies, at the time of their inception, have appeared efficacious, safe, and generally a good idea, based on the science at the time. However, in a number of cases, a technology that was once deemed appropriate and desirable has later turned out to be not such a good idea after all. Not only has it failed to deliver on its promises, but it has given rise to environmental damage and negative health impacts. Such technologies have ended up being abandoned or tightly restricted.
There are many examples from history. Asbestos, DDT insecticides, leaded gasoline, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in electrical goods were all once hailed as great innovations, but as we grew in our understanding of the mechanisms and complexities of nature’s functioning, we found they could have devastating effects on the health of humans and animals.
We continue to learn from our catastrophic mistakes, but only after serious damage has already occurred to health and the environment. In order to avoid such damage, we need to constantly review each technology from the perspective of the science from which it is derived. Transgenic and genome editing technologies are no exception.
There is no question that our food system is broken. The way we farm, the way we process, sell, buy and eat food has become an exercise in a polluted environment and polluted, undernourished bodies.
Against this backdrop the word ‘organic’ is sometimes waived like a flag – or worn like a magic cloak – that protects us from harm.
The image of organic, of an agricultural system that promotes healthy plants, animals, soil and humans; that emulates and sustains natural systems; that promotes fairness and justice for all living things; and that cares for future generations, is still strong and is still substantially true.
Organic is the most widely-used system that comes closest in practice to genuinely sustainable farming. But it’s under attack on many fronts. In part this is because there can be a large space between image and the business-as-usual reality of food production. Even with the best will in the world, unsatisfactory practices can creep in and, increasingly, corporate and industrial farming and food interests seek to benefit financially from the cache of organic while at the same time belittling, and in some cases ignoring, its core values.
As in many things the US leads the way in this. Hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have both been allowed in organic foods certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in the face of considerable opposition, recently formalised under the banner of the Real Organic Project.
The US has also been blighted by the rise what some call ‘Big Organic’ – an upscaling of organic production that mimics industrial agriculture in its reliance on monocultures, intensive animal rearing and industrial processes. One component of Big Organic is some of the well-established organic brands that have been bought up by large food conglomerates; another is the proliferation of ‘organic’ supermarkets that operate in the same unfair and unsustainable way as their conventional counterparts.
It might be argued that this is simply the consequence of continued and healthy growth in the organic market. Even if that is the case, it is also part of a subtle trend that chips away at the essential nature of organic using mumbo jumbo about the inevitability of market forces and opaque certification.
Genome editing for crop improvement lies at the leading edge of disruptive bioengineering technologies that will challenge existing regulatory paradigms for products of biotechnology and which will elicit widespread public interest.
Regulation of products of biotechnology through the US Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology is predicated on requiring burden of proof that regulation is warranted. Although driven by considerations of newly emerging processes for product development, regulation has, for the most part, focused on characteristics of the biotechnology product itself and not the process used for its development per se.
This standard of evidence and product focus has been maintained to date in regulatory considerations of genome edited crops. Those genome edited crops lacking recombinant DNA (rDNA) in the product intended for environmental release, lacking plant pest or pesticidal activity, or showing no food safety attributes different from those of traditionally bred crops are not deemed subject to regulatory evaluation.
Regardless, societal uncertainties regarding genome editing are leading regulators to seek ways whereby these uncertainties may be addressed through redefinition of those products of biotechnology that may be subject to regulatory assessments. Within US law prior statutory history, language and regulatory action have significant influence on decision making; therefore, the administrative law and jurisprudence underlying the current Coordinated Framework strongly inform policy and governance when considering new plant breeding technologies such as genome editing.
Our purpose in this discussion has been to elaborate how governance within the US legal framework is influencing decisions regarding the regulation of genome edited crops. We do not defend or justify the US regulatory system or suggest any given theory of jurisprudence which is preferable for administration of the Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology. Such considerations would require much more serious examination of the norms that constitute the basis of the US regulatory system.
However, this analysis of the regulatory framework for biotechnology in the US should provide an explanation of the circumstances in law that have led US regulatory agencies, including the USDA, to their current positions for imposing new rules for crops and derived foods developed through genome editing.
Open access .pdf also available.
A University of California, Berkeley professor stands at the front of the room, delivering her invited talk about the potential of genetic engineering. Her audience, full of organic farming advocates, listens uneasily. She notices a man get up from his seat and move toward the front of the room. Confused, the speaker pauses mid-sentence as she watches him bend over, reach for the power cord, and unplug the projector. The room darkens and silence falls. So much for listening to the ideas of others.
Many organic advocates claim that genetically engineered crops are harmful to human health, the environment, and the farmers who work with them. Biotechnology advocates fire back that genetically engineered crops are safe, reduce insecticide use, and allow farmers in developing countries to produce enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Now, sides are being chosen about whether the new gene editing technology, CRISPR, is really just “GMO 2.0” or a helpful new tool to speed up the plant breeding process. In July, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that crops made with CRISPR will be classified as genetically engineered. In the United States, meanwhile, the regulatory system is drawing distinctions between genetic engineering and specific uses of genome editing.
How the growing world population can feed itself is a crucial, multi-dimensional problem that goes beyond sustainable development. Crop production will be affected by many changes in its climatic, agronomic, economic, and societal contexts. Therefore, breeders are challenged to produce cultivars that strengthen both ecological and societal resilience by striving for six international sustainability targets: food security, safety and quality; food and seed sovereignty; social justice; agrobiodiversity; ecosystem services; and climate robustness.
Against this background, we review the state of the art in plant breeding by distinguishing four paradigmatic orientations that currently co-exist: community-based breeding, ecosystem-based breeding, trait-based breeding, and corporate-based breeding, analyzing differences among these orientations. Our main findings are: (1) all four orientations have significant value but none alone will achieve all six sustainability targets; (2) therefore, an overarching approach is needed: “systems-based breeding,” an orientation with the potential to synergize the strengths of the ways of thinking in the current paradigmatic orientations; (3) achieving that requires specific knowledge development and integration, a multitude of suitable breeding strategies and tools, and entrepreneurship, but also a change in attitude based on corporate responsibility, circular economy and true-cost accounting, and fair and green policies.
We conclude that systems-based breeding can create strong interactions between all system components. While seeds are part of the common good and the basis of agrobiodiversity, a diversity in breeding approaches, based on different entrepreneurial approaches, can also be considered part of the required agrobiodiversity. To enable systems-based breeding to play a major role in creating sustainable agriculture, a shared sense of urgency is needed to realize the required changes in breeding approaches, institutions, regulations and protocols. Based on this concept of systems-based breeding, there are opportunities for breeders to play an active role in the development of an ecologically and societally resilient, sustainable agriculture.
Plant breeding is a developing process and breeding methods have continuously evolved over time. In recent years, genome editing techniques such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR associated proteins (CRISPR/Cas), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), zinc-finger nucleases (ZFN), meganucleases (MN) and oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM) enabled a precise modification of DNA sequences in plants. Genome editing has already been applied in a wide range of plant species due to its simplicity, time saving and cost-effective application compared to earlier breeding techniques including classical mutagenesis. Although genome editing techniques induce much less unintended modifications in the genome (off-target effects) compared to classical mutagenesis techniques, off-target effects are a prominent point of criticism as they might cause genomic instability, cytotoxicity and cell death.
There has been much commotion in the media over the past week, following the ruling by the European Court of Justice over how to interpret EU laws bearing on the regulation of GM crops.
The ruling clarifies an anomaly, in that new plant varieties developed by longstanding non-GM gene-altering techniques of ‘mutagenesis‘ (using chemical reactions or ionising radiation) are now interpreted “in principle” to be classifiable as GMOs. The new GM techniques of ‘gene editing‘, on the other hand, are interpreted by the ECJ to be included in existing GM regulations.
In a complex case, the Court’s rationale is not without some ambiguity or persisting questions.
Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments — such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity — as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement.
However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes.
The authors address this knowledge gap by synthesizing research that analyses how agricultural intensification affects both ecosystem services and human well-being in low- and middle-income countries.
Overall, they find that agricultural intensification is rarely found to lead to simultaneous positive ecosystem service and well-being outcomes. This is particularly the case when ecosystem services other than food provisioning are taken into consideration.
The researchers found. for example, that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies.
Another finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. For example, a study in Bangladesh showed how rapid uptake of saltwater shrimp production is enabling investors and large landowners to get higher profits while poorer people are left with the environmental consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods long term.
The authors also found that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.
- See the University of East Anglia press release.
- See the policy brief that accompanied this paper (downloadable .pdf).
- See .pdf of authors’ accepted manuscript.