This month, the government launched a consultation into gene editing for livestock and crops in England. This aims to explore the pros and cons of genetic modification (GM) which is strictly regulated in the EU, deciding whether it could be a successful tool in post-Brexit agriculture. Currently, 60% of processed food in the USA contains GM ingredients. While less prevalent in the UK, GM crops are fed to livestock producing meat, eggs and dairy products in the UK.
Genetic modification refers to changing the genome of an organism, which codes for the proteins that make up all living things. There are many ways this may occur, but what is commonly referred to as GM is genetic engineering. Genetic modification was first seen as selective breeding, in which farmers breed certain specimens together to increase the chance of offspring having desirable characteristics, such as a cow with higher muscle mass or a taller plant. This technique has been used for thousands of years to get the best yields possible. Around 10,000 years ago Meso-American farmers selectively bred the grass teosinte to form what is now known as maize.
Genetic engineering ensures desirable characteristics are present using molecular tools. Often this involves replacing genes with those coding for better characteristics. The method discussed in the current UK consultation is pioneered by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, and edits the original genome of an organism, changing only the genes necessary. This technique won a 2020 Nobel Prize. Another example is golden rice, engineered to produce beta-carotene to combat vitamin A deficiency, known to kill millions of people across Asia each year. While created in 2000, golden rice is not available to the communities intended for, largely due to barriers imposed by pressure groups.
GM could improve global health by supplying crops that allow everyone in the world to meet their recommended nutrient and calorie intake, like golden rice, potentially eradicating global food poverty. GM can make crops resistant to pests and diseases, eliminating the need for pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides have significant disadvantages for the environment, decimating the population of useful insects, such as bees, along with the pests and affecting human health through the accumulation of toxins which are linked to cancer. GM can increase productivity of agriculture, producing more food in the same area of land. This would allow us to continue feeding the growing population and reduce the need for deforestation for farmland. GM can make crops resistant to future climate change such as droughts, floods and warmer climates, ensuring we can still feed the population as global warming intensifies.
Cross-breeding between GM crops and non-GM crops may spread the modified genes through an ecosystem, and is a common concern. Scientists and regulators analyse potential for crossbreeding and regulate any crop posing significant risk. Scientists are unsure if there are any long-term effects on human health of GM food. While GM food has been consumed in the USA for 30 years with no recorded effects, there is little data on its effects in humans. Studies in other species such as rats have shown no adverse effects throughout many generations.
The answer to this is political. Decision makers must weigh up the facts presented by science, answering questions including: Is it worth the potential long-term risk of GM to mitigate destruction to ecosystems and human health impacts of pesticides? Should we consider an option with potential unknown future risk if we could achieve the same goal through political restructuring to change lifestyles in the western world? Is it worth the suffering that continues to be endured in the developing world while we campaign for larger change?