GMOs - the future

GMOs - today and tomorrow


Genetic modification is a contentious issue. This article looks particularly at how it is used in crops, international regulations, and what lies in the future.

Governments around the world are divided on whether to sanction the growth of genetically modified food crops. Or to import them.

The EU, for instance, has devolved the decision to individual member states. Most have banned growing the crops, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England is currently trialling some, such as oilseed rape and maize.

Where are GM crops grown? In 2015, GM crops were grown in 28 countries and on 179.7 million hectares – that is over 10% of the world’s arable land and equivalent to seven times the land area of the UK. See this report for full details of which crops are grown where.

The majority of GM food crops are grown in the Americas, North and South, as well as Canada. India and China grow GM cotton, not food crops. Interestingly, China is currently making a bid to purchase the agribusiness Syngenta, which indicates the country’s willingness to start growing GM food crops.

Although countries might ban the growing of GM crops, they don't ban imports. Maize and soya, for instance, from Argentina and the US, are imported as animal feeds. Which means many of our UK farmers, although they are not growing GM crops, are using them as part of their feed system.

Few countries have banned imports and growth of GM crops - Norway and Algeria, for instance. In other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, it is decided state by state.

What about the future of GM?

Genetic engineering is entering a new phase. New breeding techniques (NBTs) such as CRISPR and RdDM, as well as synthetic biology, allow more complex changes in the genetic makeup and metabolic pathways of organisms. Instead of replacing or introducing new genes, they 'edit' the gene sequence in a plant. Although this is claimed to have greater accuracy and precision, there are still the worrying unforeseen consequences of disrupting the gene sequence. See Pleiotropy and this useful briefing paper on NBTs.

After much deliberation, in July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that NBTs which use gene editing will be regulated in the same way as genetically modified processes. This means researchers using CRISPR for instance, will have to go through the lengthy and costly process to legitimise their newly-bred plants.

There is also the increasing danger that these new techniques allow the spread of altered genes through whole wild populations - using a gene 'drive’ system that allows for an edited gene on one chromosome to copy itself into its partner chromosome. The result is that nearly all offspring will inherit the engineered gene. Gene drive could be useful to eradicate species, such as zika-carrying mosquitoes. However, there are inevitable ecosystem consequences when species are eradicated. And if just a few organisms with gene drives are released into the wild, the whole population could end up with the edited gene. See New Genetic Engineering

The following articles from the Guardian and the AAAS (American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science) explains both sides of the argument, as well as the need for a new regulatory process.

As we have said before, GM is unlikely to go away. But – as organic growers and suppliers – the more we understand the subject, the greater strength we have in order to influence safety regulations, to prevent contamination, and to encourage governments to support growers and farmers who use less invasive crop cultivation.

To understand genetic engineering, see an introduction to GMOs, GMOs - environmental concerns, GMOs - political and ethical concerns, and GMOs - health concerns.