New genetic engineering creates an artificial need for questionable ‘innovations’

Agriculture throughout the world is facing major problems and challenges. Plants derived from new genetic engineering (new GE or new genomic techniques, NGT) are promoted as a possible solution. They are supposed to contribute to a more sustainable food production. In the context of new genetic engineering, potential benefits such as faster adaptation to climate change, securing the global food supply or reducing fertilizers and pesticides, are most frequently cited.

In countries with weaker regulation of genetically engineered organisms, a few New GE plants and animals are already available on the market. Three examples:

(1) New GE tomatoes are being marketed in Japan. The content of the neurotransmitter GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) has been significantly increased in these tomatoes. In humans, GABA acts as an inhibitory signalling molecule in the central nervous system, which, amongst others, can lower blood pressure. These New GE tomatoes are being explicitly marketed as a modern ‘lifestyle product’ with relaxing effects. However, as the ingredients of New GE tomatoes can vary considerably because of, amongst others, environmental conditions, a predictably positive effect can hardly be expected. Robust data on the effects of cultivating and consuming these tomatoes do not appear to be available. Link

(2) Again in Japan, New GE puffer fish with diabetes-like symptoms are being sold. A gene responsible for regulating appetite has been switched off in these fish, so that they, amongst others, gain weight faster and become significantly heavier. However, damage to these genes can also impair embryonic development, kidney function, blood sugar levels and their behaviour. To date, fish with this artificial gene defect have been used as disease models for research into complex metabolic disorders. Therefore, by using such modified fish in food production, this so-called ‘progress’ here comes at the expense of animal health. Link

(3) In the USA, brown mustard plants have been granted market approval. The plants have been engineered with gene scissors so that the leaves taste less pungent. The leafy greens naturally form pungent bitter substances which, on the one hand, serve as a defence against pests and, on the other hand, are associated with positive human health effects when eaten as part of the diet. By modifying a total of 17 genes, an enzyme in the metabolism of these pungent bitter substances was switched off. As a result, the leaves taste less pungent, but at the same time fewer of the substances considered to be particularly valuable for health are produced. The slight pungency and the positive effect on health are actually the two main characteristics that, so far, make these mustard greens so popular. In addition, other conventionally-grown varieties of mustard greens with milder flavours have been on the market for a long time. Robust data on the effects of cultivating and consuming these New GE mustard plants do not appear to be available. Link

None of the three examples involve the insertion of foreign genes, and they are, therefore, not considered to be genetically engineered organisms in some countries. As a result, they are treated as conventionally-bred plants for the approval purposes, even though they are factually different in their genetic and external appearance from the plants and animals that can be expected from conventional breeding. Accordingly, none of these New GE organisms have been subjected to in-depth risk assessment.

If the EU Commission were to actually deregulate new genetic engineering, it would also open the way for ‘false progress’ in the EU as well – with potentially considerable consequences for humans, animals and the environment. Against this backdrop, it is important to conduct not only a risk assessment, but also a technology assessment, and within this framework, review the actual advantages and disadvantages of New GE products. This would allow a distinction to be made between possible solutions and empty promises. Moreover, it is the only way to avoid letting the biotech industry bring all its ‘innovations’ to market which are technically feasible and promise profits, but do not go along with real progress, and instead cause unnecessary risks to humans, animals, nature and the environment.

It is obvious that the first commercially available New GE products by no means represent sustainable solutions to pressing problems and challenges in agriculture. Rather, these ‘innovations’ are products whose actual need is at very least questionable, or whose development does not seem to be associated with any real progress.

Further information:
TA report

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