28 June 2013

Important to address GM myths for reasoned debate

Genetic modification is a controversial research field, but it is high time we now laid to rest some of the myths created by both sides during years of intense debate. This view is held by researchers in Mistra Biotech. One misunderstanding is that genetic engineering never entails any risks other than those of traditional plant breeding. The challenge is to use the great potential of the technology wisely, ensuring that the outcome is safe and environmentally beneficial.

Any mention of genetic engineering provokes numerous comments, mostly critical. It is especially in Europe that public opinion has been most resistant. In the rest of the world, the situation is largely different. Today, genetically modified crops are grown on roughly 12% of all farmland worldwide. Above all, plants have been modified to withstand a common type of weedkiller.

‘The fact that applications available on the market are so clearly linked to one pesticide has led to debate focusing mainly on the technology creating environmental problems, rather than to it being a way of solving them,’ says Sven Ove Hansson, Programme Director of Mistra Biotech.

At the same time, the technology has the potential to develop crops that require less fertiliser or resist pests and diseases better. If we are to be capable of turning the tide of opinion, biotechnological innovations must fulfil the stringent safety and ethical requirements imposed by food producers, public agencies and, not least, consumers. Mistra Biotech therefore chose to conduct research on everything from natural sciences to ethics.

‘There’s a deadlock on the issue of genetic engineering. The only way of moving forward is if those of us who are involved in it take part in the debate, but we must do it in a credible and objective way.’

Article addressing common myths

Hansson and Martin Weih, a plant researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, have jointly contributed an article to, the online debate site. There, they attempt to explain three common myths about genetic engineering.

‘The fact that myths form about a new scientific field is nothing unique. But genetic engineering has been called into question more because there are some notions, including religious ones, that nature mustn’t be tampered with. Those are arguments that I can understand to some extent, but we’ve bred both animals and plants to meet our needs for millennia. If we hadn’t gone in for large-scale breeding and improvement, we wouldn’t have so many different dog breeds, or the strawberries and grapefruit of today. And we’ve often done it with fairly brutal methods, such as exposing plants to strong radioactive radiation to get more mutations.’

One myth both the researchers seek to demolish is that genetic engineering is a new science where knowledge is still very limited.
‘That’s wrong: the truth is that we know lots. Today, we have very good experience-based knowledge of what happens when you move a gene from one organism to another.’

Genetic engineering intrinsically neither harmless nor harmful

Another myth they are combating is that genetic modification (GM) entails no other risks than those of traditional plant cultivation.
‘That too is wrong. Now we can do more with genetic engineering it’s possible to achieve both positive and negative results that can’t be achieved otherwise, of course. For example, you can inadvertently make a plant allergenic by moving a gene from an organism that carries the characteristic to another. We must be careful not to make mistakes of that type.’

Another myth they want to puncture is the opposite assertion: that GM is essentially dangerous.
‘That’s equally wrong. As long as we just move genes that are naturally transferable from one organism to another, the risks are no greater than in traditional plant cultivation. It’s only when we transfer genes where it isn’t possible for them to go in ordinary breeding methods that other risks may arise.’

According to Hansson, we should make use of the increased genetic knowledge that we have gained thanks to biotechnology, since it gives us better prospects of achieving a range of different benefits. Then, owing to the regulatory system, it is uncertain whether the specific genetically modified plants that the researchers develop in their greenhouses are the ones that will ultimately be launched on the market.

‘Sometimes we use genetic engineering to see what it’s feasible to achieve and then we use the results as a map and compass to make the same improvement by traditional means.’

Potential for solutions of environmental benefit

One key reason why it has been so difficult to get public acceptance of genetic engineering is that we, as consumers, have failed to perceive gains from the genetically modified products on sale.

‘So far, it’s the producers who’ve gained all the advantages, especially in the form of better growing characteristics. If the first genetically modified plants had made full use of the technology’s scope for giving us a better environment, more flavour or improved health features, we would probably have had a quite different debate,’ says Sven Ove Hansson, expressing clear criticism of the multinational companies that currently provide the world’s farmers with genetically modified crops.

‘In practice, there’s a single company that totally dominates the market — a fact that naturally arouses a great deal of distrust.’

Mistra Biotech therefore represents an attempt to take a somewhat different approach to biotechnology. The aim is to tackle agriculture and food production comprehensively, including research in aspects relating to ethics and social sciences as well as those of the natural sciences.

As for the scientific parts, both genetic modification and traditional plant breeding are being used to study how, for example, the nitrogen efficiency of barley and potatoes can be improved. The aim is to reduce the use of fertilisers and boost resistance to diseases. Scope for introducing a new oilseed crop — field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre), with its interesting properties for the environment, health and production — is also being investigated. How the use of genetic information about various crops and animals can generally facilitate plant improvement and breeding is being studied as well.

In ethics and social sciences, consumers’ attitudes towards various biotech farm products are being studied to clarify public attitudes. Other subprojects are aimed at developing new methods of ethical scrutiny and evaluation of biotechnology in agriculture, and at studying economic aspects.

Text: Per Westergård, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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