In the US and the EU there is a great deal of interest in the potential of Camelina (Camelina sativa) for genetic engineering applications. The aims are to elevate oil concentration and improve oil quality in the plants for use in industry. The main focus is on the production of agro-fuels and animal feed. In the US, the plants are already deregulated even though 18 sites on the genome were altered using the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors. As a result, these plants show patterns of genetic changes which either cannot or are barely possible to achieve through conventional breeding. Nevertheless, the US Department for Agriculture did not request detailed risk assessment. It was argued that no additional genes were inserted and ‘only’ natural genes ‘knocked out’.
Camelina is one of the oldest domesticated plants in Europe. Similarly to oilseed rape, camelina also grows beyond the fields in the environment and has the potential for gene flow to wild relatives.
What is the problem?
General claims that genetically engineered organisms should be considered safe just because no additional genes are inserted into their genome are not science-based. On the contrary, it is necessary to investigate the risks case by case. If plants show patterns of genetic change which cannot or hardly be expected to occur in nature, or be achievable through conventional breeding, the plants may have new biological characteristics and carry specific risks.
The release of these plants can seriously damage biodiversity and ecosystems. Uncontrolled spread within wild populations is especially problematic: offspring can show unexpected biological characteristics not present in the parental plants. In addition, changes in the environment, such as climate change, can trigger unexpected effects in the genetically engineered plants and their offspring.
For example, changes in the composition of odourants (aromatic compounds) or other characteristics of the flowers could adversely affect honey bees and other insects. Furthermore, experts have warned of risks to food webs from extensive cultivation of genetically engineered plants producing seeds with a changed oil composition: some of the fatty acids produced in the plants can alter growth and fecundity of the organisms feeding on these plants. These effects might also accumulate within the food chain.
A recent Testbiotech report lists more than 20 plants already deregulated in the US and explains some of the associated risks.