Home > News > Truths and lies about new and old GMOs – Testing the industry narrative

The industrial agriculture lobby is back on the offensive to avoid missing its opportunity with a second generation of GMOs, especially after Europe imposed strict rules on the first generation. Agribusiness’ main objective is to exempt new breeding techniques (NBTs) from previous GMO rules, and thus avoid testing, monitoring and labeling. In short, the best scenario for the industry would be deregulation, which will again presumably rely on their old narratives to convince public opinion.

One of their favourite arguments is to brand anti-GMO positions as anti-scientific and ideological. But unfortunately for the industry, the amount of scientific studies raising doubts over biotechnology applied to agriculture is overwhelming. GMOResearch.org is the first and most comprehensive scientific database, with over 2,000 studies and publications documenting the potential and actual risks, as well as harmful effects of GMOs. The database contains references from all over the world documenting health effects, environmental impacts, impact on non-target organisms, resistance of target organisms, pesticide drift damage, genetic contamination, horizontal gene transfer and other undesirable effects. The database also has references on crop yield, social impact, ethics and economics.

The EU Court of Justice’s ruling equating NBTs with GMOs also seems to find validation in the scientific community. The latest study published on this subject in Science Direct[1] challenges the praised precision of the Crispr-Cas9 technique, highlighting the unpredictability of the results and the possibility that undesirable side effects may be a risk for the end-user. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility has also come out in favour of regulating GMOs and NBTs.

From a scientific point of view, the claim that NBTs are ‘natural’ is also starting to crack. One of the leading arguments of the industry lobby is that gene editing techniques leave no traces, and should be equated with a natural process, thus escaping GMO regulations. But here too, new research[2] contradicts this assumption. Researchers have successfully applied a highly sensitive and highly accurate quantitative test to the first commercialised gene-edited crop: Canola Su (sulfonylurea-tolerant). This is the first open-source detection test for a genetically modified crop.

What about another old narrative: the sustainability argument, which is also peeking out from the pages of Farm to Fork? A recent study[3] by Dr. Allison Wilson of the Bioscience Resource Project in the US assesses the sustainability impacts of herbicide tolerant and Bt pesticidal GM crops, noting that, “the widespread use of Bt and Ht crops has led to the problematic development of pest resistance, ‘superweeds’, and secondary pests.” In response to these problems, “farmers increased both insecticide and herbicide use.” The study also looks at new and complex GM traits such as biofortification, or NBTs like gene editing, with a focus on the problem of unintended traits (UTs), a very common phenomenon even with regard to the simplest GM traits. Yet, GM technology is frequently acclaimed for its precision, despite reports of unexpected and harmful unintended traits (UTs) in GM crops periodically reported. Indeed, the reassuring narrative about new genetic manipulation techniques seems to be crashing against the wall of undesirable effects. Sustainability in industrial agriculture seems destined to remain a fairy tale. “While in theory it might someday be possible to create a GM crop that meets the broad requirements of sustainable agriculture,” Wilson concludes, “in practice this seems highly unlikely to ever happen.”

The results of Wilson’s studies come as no surprise to geneticist Salvatore Ceccarelli, who had already identified the same problems with Ht crops. “Any protection mechanism against a crop pest, be it genetic or chemical, can be described as unstable or stable and GMOs belong to the category of unstable solutions to the problem of pest protection. That is why, at best, they provide only a temporary fix, which in turn, creates a new problem-a resistant breed of the pest- which requires a different solution (a new GMO). Therefore, the introduction of GMOs in agriculture starts a chain reaction that only benefits the GMO company,” Ceccarelli emphasises.[4]

The only certainty in such a heated debate is that the only beneficiaries of a possible deregulation process will be those corporations who, by patenting new varieties, will profit from these policies. As remarked by Dr. Vandana Shiva, President of Navdanya International, “Gene edited organisms are GMOs. Gene editing is not is not equivalent to traditional varietal selection, but a shortcut to patenting seeds and owning the seed heritage that farmers have evolved.”[5]

Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International

This post is also available in: Italian
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References

[1] Burgio, Gaëtan, and Lydia Teboul. ‘Anticipating and Identifying Collateral Damage in Genome Editing’. Trends in Genetics, vol. 36, no. 12, Dec. 2020, pp. 905–14. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tig.2020.09.011

[2] Chhalliyil, P.; Ilves, H.; Kazakov, S.A.; Howard, S.J.; Johnston, B.H.; Fagan, J. A Real-Time Quantitative PCR Method Specific for Detection and Quantification of the First Commercialized Genome-Edited Plant. Foods 2020, 9, 1245. https://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/9/9/1245

[3] Wilson, Allison. (2020). Will gene-edited and other GM crops fail sustainable food systems?. 10.1016/B978-0-12-816410-5.00013-X. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344956402_Will_gene-edited_and_other_GM_crops_fail_sustainable_food_systems/citation/download

[4] Ceccarelli, Salvatore. Organismi Geneticamente Modificati e Nuove Biotecnologie. 31 Dec. 2018, https://salvatorececcarelli.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/organismi-geneticamente-modificati-e-nuove-biotecnologie/

[5] ‘The Lobby behind Italy’s Opening to GMOs’. Navdanya International, 23 Dec. 2020, https://navdanyainternational.org/the-lobby-behind-italys-opening-to-gmos/


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