By Jens Sundström, Department of Plant Biology and Forest Genetics, SLU in Uppsala

The following text is an excerpt from a seminar arranged by KSLA on August 30 th 2012 with the title ”Sustainable agriculture – does it need modern biotech”. The seminar has caused some stir since participants and organizers made an effort to bridge the gap between the organic movement and modern biotechnology. Special invited speakers were Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak who together have written the book Tomorrows table. See also their excellent video ”GMOrganic: A Botanical Love Story ”on the same theme.

The text along with several other excerpts from the seminar has recently been published in the Journal of the Swedish Seed Association (No 1 2013, page 6-7)  and is published here with their kind permission.

GMOs in agriculture and in research -a short introduction 

Agricultural practises are currently divided into conventional- and organic farming practises. In short, conventional farming allows the use of synthetic inputs such as mineral fertilisers and chemical pesticides while such inputs are not allowed in organic framing, as stipulated by the organic producers and their certification organisations.

The rules that are being implemented in Europe surrounding the cultivation and import of genetically modified (GM)-crops prohibit the integration of GM-crops, not only in organic farming systems but also in conventional farming systems. So called ”co-existence rules” that demand labelling, traceability and separation of GM-crops from conventionally bred varieties hinders the integration of GM-crops in existing crop-rotation schemes and we are, in practise, well under way to create three separate agricultural systems: one conventional-, one organic- and one GM-agricultural system, see e.g. (Fagerstrom et al, 2012).

One might argue that the ambition for agricultural science should be to develop an environmentally friendly agriculture that has the possibility to sustain an increasing demand for food and agricultural products, using the most efficient technologies available. However, the legal division between different agricultural practises that currently are being implemented is a major and sometimes unnecessary obstacle to this ambition.

Within the EU a GMO is defined as: “…an organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination” (EU Directive 2001/18).

In practise, what is considered a GM-crop is decided by the breeding technique used and not the final properties of the crop. Hence, two crops with identical traits, one being bred using transformation methods and one being bred using conventional methods such as mutagenesis, chromosome doubling and embryo rescue are treated as inherently differently when it comes to rules for risk-assessment and co-existence. The former being a GMO has to go through an extensive and very costly risk-assessment before any import or cultivation can be approved, while such rules do not apply to the latter. Despite the fact that many conventional breeding methods cause far more large-scale and unknown changes in the genome of a plant than the directed changes associated with transformation methods.

Modern biotechnologies such as large scale sequencing of entire genomes, functional studies of individual genes and marker-assisted breeding have also demonstrated that the domestication process in itself is associated with large and often unpredictable genomic changes. As also noted by Werner Arber in 2002, ” …naturally occurring molecular evolution, i.e. the spontaneous generation of genetic variants has been seen to follow exactly the same three strategies as those used in genetic engineering. These three strategies are:

  1. Small local changes in the nucleotide sequences,
  2. Internal reshuffling of genomic DNA segments, and
  3. Acquisition of usually rather small segments of DNA from another type of organism by horizontal gene transfer.”(Arber, 2002).

Despite this, the misconception still prevails that GM-crops have more unintended effects than conventional crops (Ammann 2012).

One specific aspect of having a legislation that is technology-based rather than based on agricultural properties of the resulting crop is that the legislation becomes irrelevant as technology development proceeds. In Europe, we now have several breeding techniques under development that are not covered by the current legislation. Those techniques include, but are not limited to: Oligo-Directed Mutagenesis (ODM), Reverse breeding, Zink-finger nucleases and Agro-infiltration.  Common for many of the new techniques are that they involve recombinant DNA in one step of the breeding process but the products that reach the market or crop that is cultivated do not harbour any recombinant DNA.

If legislators should decide that crops bred using the new breeding technologies indeed are GMOs this will pose a direct problem for risk-assessors, since many of the crops will be impossible to distinguish from existing conventionally bred varieties. In addition, depending on how legislators decide, further technology development of the new breeding techniques are likely going to be moved out of Europe causing loss of scientific know-how and future enterprises in Europe.

To conclude, the current GMO-legislation in Europe is not science-based and puts up unnecessary road-tolls on a specific technique that, if integrated with other improved agricultural practises, could help to develop a future sustainable agriculture. In fact, the current legislation hinders such integration and development. To amend this situation, European legislators need to reform the current bio-safety legislation and develop a legislation that is technology neutral and instead focuses on the properties of the developed products.

Ammann  K (2012) Genomic Misconception:A fresh look at the biosafety of transgenic and conventional crops. A plea for a process agnostic regulation. New Biotechnology: in press, pp 32

Arber W (2002) Roots, strategies and prospects of dunctional genomics. Current Science 83: 826-828

Fagerstrom T, Dixelius C, Magnusson U, Sundstrom JF (2012) Stop worrying; start growing. Risk research on GM crops is a dead parrot: it is time to start reaping the benefits of GM. EMBO reports 13: 493-497

 Note: On the KSLA seminar the chairman of the organic farmers association Carl-Eric Ehrenkrona made a statement that could be interpreted as if organic farmers in Sweden were open for using GM-crops if the crops would benefit the farmers. He has lately- in the program series ”Genvägen” by Swedish Public Radio- sadly backed from this statement and returned to his previous position on this matter. 

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