There is no such thing as “risk free” anything. All human activities carry some risk. Critics of Genetic Engineering (GE) technology misuse the Precautionary Principle (PP) claiming the risks are too great. However, they only look at the risks of using the technology but never at the risks of not using it.
Each and every time we breed a crop (or animal) we change the DNA of that organism. With traditional breeding we cross two plants and get a mixture of DNA from the parental plants that represent a brand-new combination of DNA never seen before. This method of breeding has been in use for so long that people consider it to be safe.
About 80 years ago we started using radiation and/or harsh chemicals to cause random changes (mutations) in the DNA of our food. When a seed is exposed to either of these treatments, thousands of changes are made to the DNA. If the treatment produces in a new desirable trait, the plant becomes part of the food supply. We have never known precisely what changes, how many changes, or even what type of changes were made. There are literally thousands of food crops with random DNA mutations in their pedigree. This method of breeding has proven to be safe over the years.
Now with GE technology (aka GMO) the exact trait is engineered into the crop by placing only the specific DNA that confers the desired trait. A limited number of unintended changes also occur with this process. Globally these types of crops are heavily regulated to the tune of millions of dollars of testing before they can be released to farmers. Critics claim the small number of random changes that accompany the engineered DNA changes represent unacceptable risks.
This makes no sense. Huge numbers of changes from older traditional breeding rarely cause problems so why would small numbers of changes with modern breeding techniques represent huge risks?
The European Commission 2010 report “A decade of EU-funded GMO Research 2001-2010” stated very clearly:
“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
The most precise breeding methods ever invented by humans collectively known as New Breeding Techniques (NBT). Crop varieties produced by NBT are now beginning to advance to commercial release. Critics claim the even smaller number of changes seen with NBT represent even greater risks to humans.
The history of GMO regulation is one of obstruction and lost opportunities in the developing world. It is imperative that regulators and policy makers view NBT in context of older breeding methods in order to place the level of regulations on the technology commensurate with the actual risks. These types of regulations/policies will allow the technology to flourish.
The European Academies of Science Advisory Council 2013 report was equally clear when they stated:
“There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding…There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy…It is vital that sustainable agricultural production and food security harnesses the potential of biotechnology in all its facets.”
– EASAC-Planting the Future report 2013
If the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) are to be met by 2030, Africa will need the best of every form of agriculture including GE crops and crops made with CRISPR technology (NBT). It is time for African nations to leave the fear-generating myths behind and advance the development of this technology for the betterment of agriculture across the continent. Many wonderful things can come from this technology if allowed to grow.
Vancouver Island University, Canada