GM decision imminent

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An important decision is due from the European Commission over whether a set of new genetic manipulation techniques should be regarded as ‘genetic modification’. As GM crops are outlawed in the Isle of Man, despite our not being part of the EU, it’ll be as important for us to keep an eye on this as it will for our neighbours over the water, says IoM Friends of the Earth’s Cat Turner

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The European Commission’s decision, due next month, over whether a set of seven new genetic manipulation techniques should be regarded as ‘genetic modification’ (GM) isn’t just an academic exercise.

If the techniques are determined to be GM, then the resulting organisms will be regulated much more tightly than if they are not – and the food and seed produced with them will be labelled as GM.

So what are these new techniques?

Well, it must be said that they do, in fact, all involve genetic engineering.

They’re:

– Oligonucleotide Directed Mutagenesis (ODM);

– Zinc Finger Nuclease Technology (ZFN);

– Cisgenesis and Intragenesis;

– Grafting;

– Agro-infiltration;

– RNA-dependent DNA methylation (RdDM); and

– Reverse breeding.

ODM and ZFN are ‘gene editing’ techniques, which make changes to existing genes – rather than adding extra ones (though ZFN can be used to add genes).

Cisgenesis and intragenesis are forms of GM that use genes from the same species.

RdDM is a new way to ‘silence’ genes.

Grafting, agro-infiltration and reverse breeding are new ways of using GMOs in the breeding process.

The list doesn’t, as yet, include two more gene-editing techniques that have received a fair bit of attention in the media: TALEN and CRISPR.

A number of organisations which focus on consumer and environmental issues, and civil society organisations concerned with the integrity of the food chain and the right to democratic choice over food safety and security, have been campaigning to ensure that organisms produced by these techniques will, indeed, be regulated and labelled as GM.

Their concerns include the fact that while the techniques are intended to be precise in how they’re used, that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘safe’.

Indeed, their risks are very much the same as those for many more ‘traditional’ GM techniques.

That’s to say:

– Precision isn’t the same as predictability, and it doesn’t ensure it. All of the techniques listed can give rise to unexpected, and potentially very damaging, effects.

– Any problems that do occur will be incredibly difficult to put right. Genetic pollution cannot be simply ‘mopped up’, it can leave a long and devastating legacy of environmental, economic and public health problems.

– Many of these techniques are so new that very little’s known about how they work and what could go wrong . More testing, and more independent testing, is definitely required before they’re let loose on an unsuspecting public.

– The products they produce will be patented, handing more control from farmers to big biotech companies. As readers of this column will know, the hijacking of our food systems, and the damage to ecology, human wellbeing and agricultural livelihoods is of as much concern as are the more immediate issues surrounding consumption of GM produce.

Campaigning groups such as GM Freeze (www.gmfreeze.org) help create a world in which our food is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably and with the very reasonable expectation that they should be regulated.

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