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Gaining Public Confidence in Genetically Modified Products

Gaining Public Confidence in Genetically Modified Products

Despite the fact that GMs have been around for over thirty years, they still ignite debate. We spoke to Professor Jim Dunwell, University of Reading, at the 6th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Europe to discuss the steps that should be taken to gain the public’s confidence.

What is your stance on GMs?

It’s been more than 30 years since the first GM plant was produced and this technology has had a significant economic impact on global agriculture.

As is well known, GM varieties of certain crops such as soya, maize and cotton have become dominant around the world. The vast majority of these crops are GM because it’s made the production systems more reliable for the farmer. In many cases, farmers use less insecticides. It’s also allowed them to grow crops where the routines for weed treatments or for herbicide treatments have become more efficient and obviously for some species, weed competition is the most important factor that restricts yields. That’s why farmers, especially in the developed world, have used GM varieties so effectively over the last 30 years.

The arguments against GMOs are three or fourfold. The first is that it’s potentially environmentally damaging. There is also concern that it may be harmful to the people who consume it. There is no evidence over 30 years of consumption of products either directly or indirectly from GM crops that there has been any harm to the humans who consume the crop.

If there had been an obvious case where GM crops might have damaged human health, it could be expected that successful litigation would have followed. I don’t think there is any evidence of that sort.

People have claimed that they cause environmental damage. They say things such as weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides because they’re being used on GM crops, but it’s not the GM crop itself that’s created that problem.

In those scenarios, farmers have become too enthusiastic for growing herbicide-resistant crops and have used the same herbicide excessively. Clearly, if you do that and exert select ion pressure on the weeds, that’s too extreme. There’s no doubt that there are dozens of herbicide-resistant weeds that developed over the last 20 years, but it’s not because of anything to do with the crop itself. It’s to do with how the crop is used in an agricultural system. It’s the management of the crop that’s important. Some people overlook that.

Another criticism of GM is that it’s been a leading factor that has driven consolidation within the agricultural sector. If you look at the number and range of companies now working in agriculture, selling seeds and selling agrochemicals, the number has gone down in the last 30 years from dozens to now just three or four major players.

Over the last 2 years, ChemChina has bought Syngenta, Monsanto has been bought by Bayer, and Dow and Dupont have merged. This is not good for diversity in the sector. Having fewer suppliers to choose from is not good for the future of farmers. It’s not quite a monopoly, but it’s a monopoly of three, or four, or five, which is a very small number globally.

I can see why it happens, but it has generated criticism that says consolidation of powers in a capitalist system can be intrinsically dangerous. So there needs to be some counterbalance, and how you get that diversity is a political judgement. Clearly, these mergers and takeovers are being subject to control by legal authorities either in Brussels or in the States, so in some of the cases, companies have been forced to sell some of their assets to stop complete domination.

It has to be regulated and I can see the socioeconomic justification for that, but it’s not to do with danger or risk to individuals. It has to do with how the multinational system works.

What is the current public perception of gene-edited crops? Do you think the public confuse GMOs and gene edited crops?

The degree of understanding of GM is quite varied, depending on who you talk to. I was involved in focus groups in one of the UK cities where we were conducting a consultation about attitudes to these technologies.

Some groups of people think lots of GM crops are on the market in Europe and the UK, but that’s simply not true. We asked them, “Well, are you concerned?” And some say, “Not really. As long as the food is healthy and cheap, and it’s convenient, I don’t really care. All I’m interested in is a reliable and convenient source of food.” Whereas other people say, “I would never buy GM products because I believe they are dangerous.” I’ll ask them where they get their information from and they usually tell me about various websites they’ve read. Then, after a discussion, they say, “Well, maybe I have been a bit of confused.” The level of information is very varied and depends upon people’s background and whether they have any training or education in those areas.

When it comes to gene editing, the level of information and understanding is probably even less. Some people think they are the same thing, but that’s not just common to the public. It’s also within the political system. You hear some politicians say, “Well, genome editing is just a cleverer way to do genetic modification.” They also give the impression that genome editing will not be treated as the same as GM because they know the difficulties with GM technology and they want to say that genome editing is a great new thing that will avoid all these problems.

This approach however has a disadvantage because in saying that that genome editing is better or safer than GM, you’re saying that there’s something wrong with GM. In reality, you can’t use genome editing to add in additional biochemical pathways to create a new product. For instance, if you wanted to do something similar to adding in BT toxin for insect resistance – that means adding in a gene from a completely difference source. There is no direct genome-editing equivalent because editing is changing something that’s there. If you want a novel biochemical pathway, or a novel protein product, you still require GM technology. One is not going to replace the other, and that’s why people have to be really careful when they say one method is better than the other.

The latest thing I read in the UK a couple of weeks ago was a recent large-scale survey that said there was evidence for the beginnings of quite a big generation change in that increasingly younger people are taking more a relaxed and open to these technologies than perhaps 20 or 40 years ago. This survey did attract criticism because of the wording of the questionnaire, but it may suggest a gradual change in public attitude.

What principles do you think should be put in place so that the public can gain confidence in gene editing technology? Are there any lessons to be learned from the way that GMs were handled?

There is extensive evidence that GM wasn’t widely accepted in Europe. It was more accepted in the States, but some people say it wasn’t accepted in Europe and other parts of the world because there was no direct and tangible benefit to the consumer. Most of these economic and environmental benefits are things that benefited the farmer and allowed the farmer, to spend less time spraying weeds or the insects. It’s quite hard to predict the future, at least in most parts of Europe.

The strongest and most influential part of the food chain is the retail sector. Farmers only grow what retailers require and that retailers can sell. That’s the story of GM and why the plug was pulled in the UK on the few GM products that were on the market in the 1990s, because retailers said they were being criticised for selling them, so they stopped supplying them. Nobody really knows how the retailers are going to deal with these new technologies. If they can convince themselves that there’s a commercial benefit, if they’re willing to associate their name with the product, put it on supermarket shelf, and then deal with the critical comments that may follow, then there might be a viable future.

That’s why the role of the retailers in the food chain, at least in most developed countries, is so critical – an aspect that many people do not appreciate. To the retail sector, like any business, market share is preeminent and if there is any slight doubt about consumer reaction, they will always verge on the side of the status quo.

To find out more about the regulation of plant gene editing and the commercialisation of biological products, join us at next event in the series: the 6th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: USA. Take a look at the agenda here.

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