New Gene-Editing Report Highlights Risks to Human Health and Our Environment

Posted on Sep 13 2018 - 3:47am by Sustainable Pulse

On the heels on the European Court of Justice’s ruling requiring organisms developed using new genetic engineering techniques to undergo GMO risk assessments, and several new studies revealing “genetic havoc” as a result of gene editing, Friends of the Earth and Logos Environmental released a new report Wednesday, Gene-edited organisms in agriculture: Risks and unexpected consequences.

With the breakneck speed of recent developments in genetic engineering that could be used to alter DNA in plants, animals, bacteria, and even humans, the report examines the growing body of scientific studies highlighting the risks and unintended consequences from the use of genetic engineering techniques like gene editing in agriculture.  

“Increasingly, scientific publications are revealing the genetic errors that gene-editing can create. It’s becoming clear that, if gene-edited GMOs are to be used in U.S. agriculture, they need to be carefully scrutinized for any unexpected effects,” said co-author Dr. Janet Cotter of Logos Environmental. “The real question is whether GMOs are needed in agriculture at all. Advanced conventional breeding is now highly effective at producing the traits in plants and animals that both farmers and consumers desire and entails less risks to the environment and human health.”

“New genetic engineering techniques like gene editing are risky and may result in surprise consequences for people and  the planet,” said Dana Perls, report co-author and senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “These new GMOs must be properly assessed for health and environmental impacts before they enter the market and our food system.”

In recent years, there has been much discussion of how gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR, can broaden the scope of genetic engineering in agriculture. However, it’s becoming clear that gene editing techniques are error prone. In July 2018, scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the U.K. found that new genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR may cause “genetic havoc”. Earlier this year, researchers found large deletions and complex rearrangements of DNA near the target site that were not intended by researchers. Two recent independent studies found that cells genetically engineered with CRISPR “have the potential to seed tumors”, or may initiate mutations that develop into tumors.   

This new report compiles growing evidence demonstrating the unintended consequences and surprise impacts that may result from gene-edited plants and animals, including so-called “gene drives”. It highlights the unintended effects and potential risks related to gene editing applications in agriculture as reported in peer-reviewed scientific studies and identifies research gaps in the analysis of how gene editing in agriculture may negatively impact human health and ecosystems.

Key Findings:

  • Studies show that gene-edited organisms are prone to unintended and unexpected effects at the molecular level. These could pose a threat to human health and the environment if commercialized without comprehensive mandatory safety assessment and oversight.
  • Gene drives, designed to drive a particular trait through the entire population of a species, could have far-reaching and unpredictable negative consequences for organisms and the environment.
  • The prevalence of herbicide-tolerant gene-edited plant proposals implies that gene editing applications will further entrench a chemical-intensive approach to agriculture.
  • There are significant gaps in research about how unintended consequences at the genetic level may impact the whole organism or interact with complex environmental factors.   

Recommendations from the report:

  • All genetic engineering techniques should fall within the scope of government regulatory oversight of genetic engineering and GMOs, using the Precautionary Principle to protect human health and the environment.
  • Oversight and regulations for GMOs, including gene-edited organisms, should include independent assessment for environmental and food safety and long-term impacts before entering the market or environment, and products of all genetic engineering should be traceable, and labeled as GMOs.
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