Genetic engineering is endangering the livelihoods of future generations

Why new genomic techniques need strict regulation

From the perspective of health and environmental protection, the technical potential of new genetic engineering techniques, especially the applications of CRISPR/Cas, is alarming. This is even recognised by the inventors of the technology. For example, Jennifer Doudna, who has filed many patents for CRISPR technology, writes:

“Given how radical the implications of gene editing are for our species and our planet, opening the lines of communication between science and the public has never been more essential than it is now.”

(Doudna & Sternberg “A Crack in Creation”, 2017)

Therefore, the examples listed here aim to illustrate the risks associated with new genetic engineering technology (also called “new genomic techniques”). If genome edited organisms are not strictly regulated, their release has the potential to endanger biodiversity and our livelihoods (see report Genetic engineering endangers the protection of species). 

Many stakeholders are openly seeking to avoid any open discussion regarding these risks. Frequently, this is because of their economic interests in the research, development and marketing of genome-edited products. Our aim here is to call attention to the possible impacts on humans, nature and the environment, based on the available scientific information.

The new techniques enable profound changes in the genome, even without the insertion of additional genes. In many cases, changes in biological properties are the result, e.g. changed composition of plants that goes far beyond what could be achieved with previous breeding methods.

Contrary to what is often claimed, the new genomic techniques cannot be put on the same level as conventional breeding methods or naturally occurring mutations. Gene scissors, such as CRISPR/Cas, are biotechnological mutagens that can be used to bypass the natural mechanisms of gene regulation and inheritance. They make the genome accessible for changes in a new and much more profound way. The resulting genetic changes typically differ significantly from those of ‘spontaneous’ or ‘random’ mutations. Furthermore, in many cases the new genetic engineering techniques also cause specific unintended and undesirable effects. Examples are the unintentional insertion of additional genes and changes in the genome at the wrong location.

In addition, the new technology is also frequently combined with ‘old’ genetic engineering methods, such as the ‘gene cannon’. They are used to insert the ‘gene scissors’ into the genome of the target organism, causing a multitude of additional risks.

Moreover, it poses major challenges in environmental risk assessment, e.g. changes in the composition of plants, which may have an impact on the food web or on interaction and communication with the environment. Genetically engineered organisms that can persist and reproduce in the environment are another high level risk.

Our examples show that the genetic and biological characteristics of genome edited organisms must be thoroughly examined case-by-case, taking into account the specific techniques used before a decision on their safety can be made. Even tiny interventions in genetic make-up can have huge effects.

In our videos and brochure “What is (not) genetic engineering?” we explain the fundamental differences between conventional breeding and ‘old’ and ‘new’ genetic engineering in plant breeding.

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