New genetic engineering: Pollinators being put at risk

New data review focused on oilseed rape and camelina

28 November 2023 / A review of the data in current publications shows that the cultivation of plants obtained from new genetic engineering (New GE, or new genomic techniques, NGT) may put pollinators, such as bees, at risk. In addition to nectar, pollinators collect pollen from flowering plants such as oilseed rape and camelina. However, the composition of New GE plants can be altered in a way that it makes the pollen unsuitable as a food source for insects.

The new review provides a comprehensive overview of recent New GE applications in oilseed rape and camelina, which are important plants for pollinators. The plants belong to the cruciferous family and are cultivated as oil crops. Conventional breeding has already resulted in some significant changes to the quality of oil in the seeds and pollen produced by oilseed rape and camelina, but New GE could significantly speed up the development and exacerbate its impact.

The aim of several New GE applications in oilseed rape and camelina is to drastically reduce the content of polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6). The reason: these fatty acids are undesirable in the production of agrofuels. If the concentration of these fatty acids is decreased in the plants, as a result, their content is also decreased in the pollen. However, these fatty acids have important functions in insects, including influencing their brain functions and reproduction. Drastic changes to the concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids in feed can, therefore, result in threatening the survival of the insect populations.

There are already around 50 publications on New GE applications in oilseed rape and camelina, mostly using the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors. In around 20 applications the amount or the composition of the oils was changed. Furthermore, more than 15 publications are dealing with an increase the number of seeds produced in the plants, which can promote their uncontrolled spread. This is particularly worrying in the case of oilseed rape and camelina, as these plant species can easily cross-pollinate with other related wild plants.

Properties such as the composition of oil and fatty acids or the number of seeds can also be influenced by conventional breeding. However, even now, the use of gene scissors is resulting in plant traits which go beyond those previously known. In many cases, only detailed risk assessment can reveal which traits are actually new and which risks they may be associated with.

In addition, there are numerous possible new gene combinations as well as the simultaneous change of several genes. The rapidly rising number of number of GE applications is making it increasingly difficult to reliably assess the associated risks. In this context, the unintended effects resulting from New GE processes must also be taken into account, as these can cause extensive genomic disarrangement.

Reliable risk assessment is also becoming more complicated since it is not only the specific traits that are crucial: similar to environmental pollution with plastics and chemicals, it does not have to be an individual New GE plant that causes the problems. Rather, it is the totality of the effects of different GE organisms and their interactions that can be decisive. In this context, the organisms can persist for a very long time in the environment and put burden on future generations. It is, therefore, essential to retain the current legal requirements for examining the risks associated with the individual plants and their interactions if New GE is to be introduced into agriculture.

However, the EU Commission is planning to abandon the current regulations. Most New GE plants would then no longer be subject to mandatory risk assessment. Instead, the examples listed in the overview would be legally equated to conventionally-bred plants. As such, New GE would pose a further significant threat to the environment, including pollinators and food webs. At the same time, risks to human health could not be ruled out.

The EU Commission, the EU member states and the EU Parliament are currently negotiating the new regulations. The EU Commission demands far-reaching deregulation, not only for arable plants but also for wild, non-domesticated species. Many observers are concerned about the build-up of considerable time pressure, which could make it impossible to adequately consider the risks associated with New GE.

Christoph Then,, Tel + 49 151 54638040