GM focus: Is fact lost among ‘spurious claims’ in the GM debate?

Many people hear the word biotechnology and they tune out; they think it’s too complicated. They choose to listen to something a bit less taxing. This is what scientists fear, that the factual information gets lost in the biotech debate.

At the end of July, the ECJ (European Court of Justice) made a decision to place gene-edited crops in the same category as genetically-modified (GM) crops.

One Irish scientist told AgriLand that this decision will put the EU in “the dark ages” of technology.

The repercussions, according to Dr. Barbara Doyle Prestwich, will be the EU falling behind in technology that can result in less chemical use in our food chain and, as a result, impact heavily on sustainable farming and climate change.

Barbara is originally from Co. Kilkenny and now lectures in UCC (University College Cork). She is the current president of the International Association of Biotechnology (IAPB) and played an integral role in bringing the association’s conference to the Convention Centre in Dublin this week.

She is passionate about her subject and clearly frustrated by what she describes as the lack of scientific fact placed behind the “anti” groups “mad claims” on biotechnology.

What does the decision by the ECJ mean?

Gene editing (mutagenesis) and genetic modification (transgenesis) are two different techniques used in biotechnology. However, gene-edited crops will now be treated in the same way as genetically-modified crops under EU regulations.

Barbara explained that hundreds of crops have been developed since the 1960s using mutagenesis. These crops were developed using a technique called blasting.

“Whether it’s a chemical as a mutagen or whether it’s a physical mutagen like x-rays or gamma-rays, they are on the market and deemed safe. Roll on several decades, a new technique has been developed fairly recently.

This technique can now create changes in DNA, but much more precisely than the violent approach of blasting or treating them with chemicals. So it’s a much more precise technique.

“With gene editing you can go in and change one or two things as opposed to blasting it all. That can occur naturally and does occur. The CRISPR technique for instance occurs naturally in bacteria and it is a natural process that has evolved in bacteria to fight incoming viruses.”

Genetically-modified crops (transgenesis) have been developed by inserting DNA into plants. For example, the GM potato study in Teagasc Oak Park used a GM potato which had a trait for blight resistance from a wild potato.

A view of the GM potato study at Teagasc Oak Park

Disappointing ruling which will stymie research in Europe

“I think that [the ECJ decision] was a very disappointing ruling to say the least. The implications for the ruling from the ECJ are that gene editing will now be regulated in the same way as conventionally genetically-modified crops.

“So what that means in essence is that it is going to cause major issues in terms of moving ahead with the science in Europe.

It’s really going to stymie research.

“I don’t think it’s too big of an exaggeration to say that it is going to have a knock-on effect on the bio-economy in Europe; already some of the companies have said that they’re not going to do the research in Europe.

It is really and truly throwing us back into the dark ages of technology and the application of technology in Europe.

Barbara will continue to put the results coming from her research in the public eye and to lobby to change the ECJ’s decision.

“I think the decision has to be changed and I think that’s the way we will operate. My job is to educate. I do a lot of teaching in UCC. Another part of my job is research and part of my job, which I take very seriously, is communication.

“I will continue to write letters; to hold meetings; to publish papers; to go on websites and social media. I’m on twitter and I will use scientific evidence to contradict and address some of these spurious claims that are being made.”

Communicating the science

Barbara finds it hard to understand how people might queue for the latest phone, but when it comes to food production these same people want to go back to “the good old days”.

“Well what were the good old days? They were lower yields, higher inputs and poorer-quality chemicals – so chemicals that are much less safe. The technology is being rejected on – I think – spurious grounds,” explained Barbara.

“Really and truly, the words sustainable and green Ireland, these terms are being hijacked almost as if they belong to certain groups – the organic sector for instance – and as if they’re the very opposite to technology, but that’s not the case at all.”

Barbara explained that you can be doing the best science in the world, but it’s meaningless if you can’t relate it to what it means for the consumer.

“As a result of genetic modification – whether that’s gene editing or conventional modification – you can have lower inputs; lower insecticides; lower agro-chemicals overall; higher yields; need less land for production; and less water.”

The IAPB conference ran from August 19 to 24. Aside from the speakers, there were a large number of poster presentations on display

‘The anti-camp’

Barbara was frustrated by what she calls the “anti-camp” who, in her mind, are not anti-science when it comes to things like climate change, but are when it comes to genetic modification.

They will not except the science; the factual information.

“The point I would make here is that many of these groupings have an agenda and their agenda is a money agenda.

“If you were to follow the money and follow the trail you would find that these are not independent, objective voices that are raising issues purely on safety grounds or environmental grounds.

“They are also making money, but from the opposite point of view. That’s an issue and it’s an issue that gets lost.”

Making headlines

Barbara is frustrated as a scientist who works on facts.

“All the consumer sees is those headlines that these groups put out and they don’t have to fact check. They can make really fantastic headlines that are like click bait essentially.

As a scientist you might use words like ‘might’. We don’t make mad claims and I would call them mad claims.

“The other side can do that. They’re not operating as scientists. Their code of practice is very different to ours. We will always work on this precautionary measure really.”

Loss of research funding

A substantial amount of research funding in this country is dedicated to research on gene editing. While Barbara admits that it will be hard to secure funding, she stated that the research needs to be done or Ireland will fall behind.

“Why would government agencies like Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Enterprise Ireland put money into this area again?

The research must continue. We’ll keep exploring and there will always be opportunities.

“We must – as scientists – communicate and change the minds of our elected Government representatives, which will also then feed directly into the national funding agencies like SFI and Enterprise Ireland.

“We’ll continue to talk to industry. We’ll continue to go out to the EU to get funds. By holding these meetings there are networking opportunities to allow us to form collaborative research programmes abroad.”

Government decisions need evidence

Barbara was annoyed by a proposal adopted by the Cabinet this summer.

“At the start of the summer, Minister Denis Naughten brought a proposal to Cabinet to ban the growing of GM crops in Ireland. This makes no sense to me because he is the Minister for Communication, Climate Action and Environment.

How can you be the Minister for Climate Action and completely ignore the scientific evidence surrounding how you can reduce inputs?

“Don’t get me wrong or my agenda wrong, first of all we’re public scientists so we’re not in the hands of any organisations.

“You can’t except some scientific evidence for one agenda that you may have and completely ignore the valid scientific evidence on the other hand.

The amount of insecticides that were reduced on the back of using GM BT corn since 2016 in the US was, I think, the equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road. That’s huge in terms of output for greenhouse gases.

“In Ireland, we’re a small island yet we have ministers in different areas making opposite decisions. It’s like there is no agreement and it certainly – to me – doesn’t seem like there is scientific advice channelling into these decisions. It is a populist vote,” Barbara added.

Integrated pest management can include gene editing

Integrated pest management (IPM) plays a massive role in crop production across the EU.

“The approach should never be that it’s either all GM or nothing. The EU has dictated that we have to follow an IPM approach; if you like it’s a tool kit we’re operating with. We have to accept that the solution to all of these problems doesn’t reside in using GM.

Met Eireann, Blight, Blight Warning

“No matter how many GM products you roll out that’s not going to be the solution. The solution is looking at what’s available to us in the tool kit and using the appropriate tools; but it shouldn’t be this very narrow view of going back to the old because that’s the best.

In this country farmers spray potatoes 15 times per season. Look at the advantage of having a potato that’s been altered; that can fight back.

“Don’t ban the tools. Don’t put these off the plate. We need to continue to do the research; to train the next generation of researchers.”