After decades on the naughty step, “Frankenfoods” are making a comeback.
In his very first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street and promised to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules”. Free from the outdated red tape imposed by those scaredy cats in Brussels, he said, Britain would be able to “develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”. Almost three years later, the government has finally got round to it, announcing new legislation – the genetic technology (precision breeding) bill – in the Queen’s speech.
What does the new bill propose?
The plan is to encourage biology boffins to tinker with plant and animal genes without adding in any extra genetic material from other species. What the bill does not cover is smushing together the genes of separate species, despite decades of evidence that such an approach can be highly effective and totally safe. Although it isn’t perfect, the proposed legislation is the first step in allowing Britain’s outstanding scientists to actually do the stuff they’ve been busy fiddling with in labs for years.
Potatoes, for example, are highly susceptible to blight, says Robin McKie in The Observer, a “devastating agricultural scourge that costs UK farmers tens of millions of pounds every year”. A team in Norfolk has spent decades working with genetic modification tools to create the PiperPlus, identical to the Maris Piper potato – Britain’s top spud – but resistant to blight. But because the technique uses genes from more than one species, nervy rule makers still haven’t given it the green light.
Is that a big deal?
At the moment, farmers are spraying harsh chemicals on their fields 15 times a year to protect against blight, says Prof Jonathan Jones, who helped invent the PiperPlus. “Their tractors spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and compact the soil in the fields, and the chemicals they spray can get into the water supply.” A little jiggery pokery at the genetic level, and all that environmental damage, not to mention cost, goes away. This is what anti-GM folk fail to understand, says Matt Ridley in The Daily Telegraph. Genetic engineering will allow farmers to dodge expensive, harmful chemicals and become “genuinely organic”.
That’s the roasties sorted. What else?
Similar techniques can be used to inject omega-3 fatty acids, known to protect against heart disease and strokes, into ordinary veg. The main source at the moment is oily seafood like salmon, but with global fish stocks dwindling, many people are understandably iffy about depleting them further. British scientists have shown they can genetically tweak a plant called Camelina to produce tons of omega-3. Another group in Scotland has created a new breed of pigs, with specific sections of a gene deleted, that are resistant to a disease which can cause widespread deaths on pig farms. The same technology, says one of the researchers involved, Prof Alan Archibald, could be used to breed pigs that are resistant to African swine fever, which is “a major killer across the world”.
Is anyone else doing this stuff?
The UK is not just lagging behind “America, Argentina, Australia and China” in applying this technology, says Ridley, “much of which was invented in Britain”. We’re behind parts of Africa, too: Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are “seeing great results”. Insect-resistant cowpea, for example, which is widely grown in Nigeria, has four times the average yield of conventional varieties. Meanwhile, scientists in Beijing have invented a type of cabbage that produces scorpion venom to kill hungry caterpillars when they come munching. (It’s been specially altered to make it harmless to humans.) At the more bizarre end of the spectrum, in 2007 eggheads in South Korea altered a cat’s DNA to make it glow in the dark. And before that in Taiwan, researchers bred three pigs that glowed fluorescent green. The point wasn’t to keep tabs on the creatures’ nocturnal movements, but to prove the power of genetic modification.
Why is it important?
The war in Ukraine and resulting sanctions have “taken a huge slice out of global food production”, says Juliet Samuel in The Daily Telegraph. Mercifully for us, the UK “does not depend for food on any country or trade route directly affected by the war”. But between them, Russia and Ukraine account for 75% of the world’s sunflower oil, 34% of wheat and 25% of barley exports. Many of Europe’s neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa will be among the worst affected – Egypt, for example, gets 60% of its wheat from Russia, and another 25% from Ukraine. Without new sources of food, and fast, “we will see riots, starvation and conflict arise in countries around the world”.
What are we doing about it?
For now, says Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times, British politicians say they are monitoring the situation, “which means they aren’t doing anything at all”. But one day they will have to, because while “people can live without heat or clothing or even sex”, they cannot live without food. “Hunger makes people eat their neighbours.” In a world facing “potential mass starvation”, says Ridley, farmers have not just an incentive but “a duty to be productive”. If we’d only resisted the “technophobic lurch” and adopted GM crops 25 years ago, our farmers would be getting “higher yields, with lower emissions, less use of chemical pesticides and greater biodiversity in their fields”. We know this because “that is the experience of farmers who did adopt those crops elsewhere”.
So what are we afraid of?
The criticisms of gene editing are “flimsy”, says The Economist. There is no evidence that the technique poses a risk to human health – “two decades of research on genetically modified crops have demonstrated their safety”. The resistance stems from “decades of scaremongering” and a general lack of awareness about gene editing’s many advantages. Once the public sees a material benefit – lower prices or healthier fruit, say – they’re bound to come round. And the environmental benefits are too good to miss, says Prof Dale Sanders, head of a plant science centre in Norfolk. Farming produces “far more carbon emissions than the aviation industry” – fertilisers are made from fossil fuels and, along with pesticides, can cause huge damage to the countryside. “Only science can save us from these sorts of problems.”