Two perspectives on GE developments – and an appeal for ALL political parties to get up to date with their policies

GE-Free NZ, in its latest press release this week, asks: Do GE developers really know what they are doing?

The release complains that New Zealand consumers will be left in the dark about Australian-grown foods created by using gene editing techniques.

It was triggered by an Australian Senator putting up a motion to disallow, or overturn, the recently passed Gene Technology Amendment Regulations 2019.  These allow the gene editing of animals, plants and microorganisms without them needing to go through the regulatory process.  The motion was defeated.

Jon Carapiet, spokesman for GE-Free NZ, says the decision ushers in a wild west of gene editing that puts at risk the environment, people’s health and consumer trust in Australian food.

Gene editing of SDN1 foods can be commercialised in Australia without any Government oversight, he said.  Moreover, they will escape any safety studies.

These manipulations have not undergone any testing for safety when eaten.

“This comes when scientists are warning about the dangers posed by gene edited organisms,” Mr Carapiet said.

“There are serious mutations and off-target effects that have been labelled as ‘clumsy’.   

“As GE plants are able to produce pollen and pass on their engineered traits these clumsy and off target effects may pose serious dangers to the plant, environment and those who eat them.”

Gene editing is a new form of genetic engineering and its techniques are still only at an early development stage, Mr Carapiet contended.

No environmental or feeding tests have been conducted to see if, for example, the gene is absorbed by the gut, or to test what are effects on the soil or plants that are cross contaminated with the pollen.

There are good reasons to doubt if GE developers really know what they are doing, given the latest evidence of unintended effects from gene editing, Mr Carapiet said.

“Regularly we are being told of precision techniques that reflect wishful thinking and opinion rather than scientific evidence.

“GE organisms are being released too early without the requisite safety studies. Once released, research has shown serious problems are arising, these should have been properly tested for before release. Recently, scientists are admitting that GMOs are a failure and also that the new gene edited *CRISPA, *TALENS, ZFN *; genetically engineered crop technology is not as precise as promoted, being clumsy and full of “unwanted” effects. Anzalone et al (2019) have developed a Mark 3.00 “prime” GMO touted as being “more” precise, but which is as yet untested.

“What is concerning is the recognition that there are many problems associated with GE transgenes and CRISPA technologies, yet now a new GE technique is being hyped but without addressing the problems associated with the older technologies.

“We must be able to guarantee that our food chain is safe and all GE foods are tested and labelled. We must ensure that our regulations stay strong and do not let down the public by letting unsafe food onto the market.”

*CRISPA= clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats
*TALENS = Transcription Activator-Like Nucleases
*ZFNs= Zinc Finger Nucleases

*****

Scientists in need of an antidote to Mr Carapiet’s alarmist statement might take comfort from a blog post by Grant Jacobs.

His prompt was the recent news that more than 150 post-graduate students and young scientists presented an open letter to the Green Party via The Spinoff, encouraging them to reconsider their position on genetic modification. Their target is tackling climate change issues.

He asks:  can any party continue to be dismissive about genetic modification (GM) contributing to better agriculture?

“We all want safe food, and the environment and climate change are important issues to tackle. New varieties can contribute, including those developed using GM.

“All political parties have quietly let the GM legislation slide, not just the Green Party. It is unimpressive no party has moved the temporary legislation on. (Such outstanding timidity! Such an excellence of hand-sitting!)

“It’s an issue politicians avoid, I believe, because the core of opposition to GMOs is about some people’s beliefs, not science, and politicians are reluctant to deal with beliefs.

“I’d suggest we’re better with an “Each to their own, and respect others” approach. There’s a room for both.”

Among the conceptual points often missed or avoided (Dr Jacobs says) are:

  • Treat things based on beliefs or ideals as secular issues are. (‘Each to their own’, not one or the other.)
  • Understand risk properly. (Seeking perfection is often about avoidance.[3])
  • Insist on proper use of the ‘precautionary principle’ (It’s too often misused: it’s a temporary hold while waiting for evidence.)
  • Agricultural issues are generally better mitigated through management plans.
  • Labels stigmatise. They’re an inherently bad thing to build legislation around.

“GM is a big topic. This will only look at a few concepts, and leave examples and the legislation for another time. Some of the ground is familiar from four years ago – recommended reading! The footnotes contain some additional thoughts.”

Dr Jacobs recalls that when the NZ Environmental Protection Agency presented options to use during the last tweak to the GM legislation, the “softest” of them was selected, the one that involved the least effort by cabinet.

All the suggested actions were intended to be temporary, he noted – but four years later, no party has moved this to a long(er)-term solution. “So this isn’t just about the Green Party.”

While writing his piece, he notes, the Sustainable NZ Party was announced. They support environmental issues, including using “gene technologies”.

He quoted party leader Vernon Tava, who said:  “The latest techniques can be likened to accelerated selective breeding. They show huge promise in the control of introduced predators and in reducing livestock emissions.”

Gene technology was still in its infancy, Mr Tavas said,

“ … yet these powerful tools are denied us based on an ideological position formed in the 1970s, before current technologies were developed.”

Genetic engineering as a whole has been around decades, Dr Jacobs concludes. Some gene editing techniques are new, but they’re seen as better than older approaches.)

He asks: can any party continue to be dismissive about genetic modification?

Sources:  GE-Free NZ; Sciblogs

 

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