On October 7, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the creators behind the genetic scissors CRISPR Cas9. The technology makes it possible to change the properties of an organism by cutting and replacing parts of the genome. The proponents of the technology point to the possibilities of, for example, developing crops that can withstand drought better or increase yields. But can the new genetic engineering really live up to its promises? And what consequences can the introduction of technology have for food production?
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded last week to the French researcher Emanuelle Charpentier and the American researcher Jennifer Doudna for the discovery of the genetic scissors CRISPR / Cas9 which can change the genetic material of organisms. Gene scissors have several uses. Among other things, it can be used in medicine to create new treatments for cancer and researchers believe that in the near future it can be used to cure serious inherited diseases.
Agriculture is another area where genetic scissors can be applied. Proponents believe that technology can have a great positive impact on future plant breeding - that with the help of genetic scissors, crops can be developed that can withstand drought better, give increased yields or have special properties. A project is already underway in Sweden where, with the help of CRISPR / Cas9, they are trying to grow potatoes for the starch industry with improved storage properties.
Since 1990, various genetic modification techniques have been used in agriculture to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) created to be able to produce toxins that cause pests to die or with properties that make them tolerant to chemical pesticides. As the use of GMOs can have unforeseen consequences and risks, the technology is regulated by the EU. This also applies to the new genetic techniques, including the CRISPR / Cas9 gene scissors, which involve a direct modification of the DNA of animals or plants. CRISPR, on the other hand, differs from traditional GMO techniques in that no new property is added from the outside, but instead you cut and paste in the existing genome.
The image that is often given by genetic scissors is that it is a technology that enables precise changes in plants or other organisms and that these changes are very likely to deliver the desired results. The images do not fully agree with the research in the field which shows that changes in the genome often have unforeseen consequences. A study published in the scientific journal Nature Methods shows that the gene scissors created hundreds of unexpected mutations in the genome of mice. Another study published in B.M.C. Biology points to similar results. In a interview for BMC Biology, the lead author of the study, Lydia Teboul, a molecular biologist, says that unexpected effects are common. Even Jennifer Doudna, who together with Emanuelle Charpentier discovered the genetic scissors, says in one interview with the BBC that she is worried about the unexpected consequences that technology may have.
Biotechnology companies want to avoid regulation
In July 2018 took The European Court of Justice with reference to the precautionary principle, the decision that CRISPR and other new genetic technologies should be covered by GMO legislation. But some biotechnology companies try to circumvent the regulation and avoid the costs that a risk assessment entails. Biotechnology companies are dissatisfied with the ruling of the European Court of Justice and are now demanding a revision of EU GMO legislation to prevent the new GMO technologies from being subject to risk assessment, traceability and labeling. This risks threatening consumers' right to know what their food contains.
Traceability guarantees GMO-free
Thanks to the EU's traceability and labeling system, we can guarantee that both organic and GMO-free conventional agriculture is free of GMOs throughout the value chain. In order to maintain the self-determination of farmers, processors and consumers, it is necessary that the current GMO legislation is preserved and applied to both traditional and new GMO technologies in line with the rulings of the European Court of Justice.
The sustainable agriculture of the future does not need GMOs
To meet the challenges of the future, we do not need old or new GMO technologies. We need innovative agriculture based on the principles of organic farming. We need an agriculture that pays the farmer fairly and that manages the public goods - such as biodiversity - that enable the production of healthy and sustainable food.
llustration: © Johan Jarnestad / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.