The products of new genetic modification techniques (NGMTs) are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and should be strictly regulated as such, according to a statement released Thursday by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).
The statement challenges claims by proponents that these new GM techniques (often called New Plant Breeding Techniques or NPBTs) are so precise and controllable that their products are not genetically modified organisms in the usual sense and do not pose any greater risks than their non-GMO counterparts. Proponents are arguing for deregulation of the products of new GM techniques at the European level. This would mean that these products would not undergo a mandatory safety assessment and would not carry a GMO label.
However, according to the ENSSER statement, which is currently signed by over 60 international scientists, scientific evidence shows that these techniques (including CRISPR-Cas/Cpf to oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis, cisgenesis, and RNA-dependent DNA methylation) “are highly prone to off-target effects”. In the case of food crops produced with these techniques, that could lead to unexpected toxicity or allergenicity.
The statement, published on the same day as the EU Commission holds a “High Level Conference” on the new GM techniques, also says that genome editing techniques have become so easy to carry out that they open up the possibility of abuse and inadvertent misuse, including for bioterror purposes.
Gene drives (designed to rapidly spread a trait through populations or entire species) carry a particular risk of causing ecological imbalance and disruption.
In light of such risks, the statement says, the new techniques “should be regulated at least as stringently as is currently required by the strictest GMO regulations”.
The scientists’ statement adds that all GMOs, whether derived from old-style GM or new GM techniques, “should be labelled in order to ensure consumer and farmer choice and to enable traceability, monitoring and regulatory oversight in the case of any adverse effects that appear post-commercialization. Traceability and labelling are also minimum requirements for being able to assign causation and responsibility in the event of long-term adverse effects.”
Commenting on the new statement, signatory Dr Michael Antoniou of King’s College London, who also helped to draft it, said, “Regulators should acknowledge that the new GM techniques used in agriculture, especially genome editing, are indeed genetic modification procedures. If they did acknowledge as much, then they would be true to the state of the science behind these procedures – and they would inevitably decide to put strong measures in place to protect the public and the environment.
“In my area of gene-based medical research, genome editing is viewed as genetic modification with inherent off-target effects and it is not questioned that it must be strictly regulated for both safety as well as efficacy.”
The new GM techniques are misleadingly termed by proponents New Plant Breeding Techniques (NPBTs), in an apparent attempt to hide the fact that they are GM techniques and to align them in the public’s mind with traditional breeding methods.
Following the failure of GM crops in the EU and in light of possible ban or restrictions on the use of the GMO-associated pesticide glyphosate, the agribusiness industry sees these new GMOs as their main source of income for the next few decades. That is why, while publicly fighting to keep old-style GMOs and their associated pesticides, they are also pushing for the deregulation of new GM techniques at European level.
The EU authorities have been debating whether and how to regulate the new techniques for years, but no decision has yet been made.