The risks of New GE techniques

Warning against the deregulation of genetically engineered organisms

24 March 2022 / A new document released today by Testbiotech and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) discusses the basic differences between plant breeding and genetic engineering, and argues that these differences need to be considered in regulation.

In the European Union and Canada, there are ongoing debates about deregulating organisms derived from methods of new genetic engineering (New GE, also called genome editing or new genomic techniques). Proposals to exempt genome editing from regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) largely rest on assumptions about similarities between genome editing and conventional plant breeding that are not supported by scientific findings. These assumptions have led to the impression that there are no new and specific risks caused by New GE as compared to conventional breeding.

However, genome editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas can override the natural mechanisms in genome organisation that protect essential genes from mutation. The resulting organisms need to therefore be considered as being different from plants and animals derived from conventional breeding and physical or chemical mutagenesis. Both intended and unintended effects from the processes of New GE can result in genotypes and phenotypes which, in comparison to conventionally bred plants, are as unlikely to occur as those resulting from the insertion of ‘foreign’ genes in transgenic plants.

Many potential intended and unintended effects are specific to the techniques of New GE, and may result in a new quality of hazards and risks that demand independent and mandatory risk assessment. This assessment cannot be restricted to the intended new characteristic(s). Instead, the processes by which new characteristics are introduced into organisms need to be taken into account.

Decision making over the introduction of plants and animals derived from New GE have to guided by the precautionary principle, to prevent ecosystems and food systems from being flooded with too many risks, uncertainties and unknowns within a short period of time.

Both the risks associated with individual GE organisms, and the systemic risks of using New GE need to be taken into account in regulation. Therefore, a comprehensive and prospective technology assessment needs to be conducted to address the systemic and long-term risks of New GE.

Christoph Then, Tel +49 151 54638040,