Use the C-word all you want: they're still GM potatoes

Mon, Mar 26, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:THE CAPACITY of new language to confuse comes into sharp focus in the GM crops debate.

Their defining feature is that they contain a gene transferred from another species by genetic engineering. Species can be usefully defined as a group of organisms all of whose members are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

So, the kind of “transgenic” jump involved in the production of GM crops is not something that could ever happen in nature.

Only in the past 20 years or so have GM/transgenic crops even existed, an invisible blip on the evolutionary timeline of 1.2 billion years since sex evolved. The normal scale of evolutionary change in organisms has been completely overwritten by GM technology, and we simply do not know what the long-term effects might be.

The first GM/transgenic commercialised crop, a tomato, hit the US in 1994 and today GM/transgenic maize, soy and canola make up a considerable portion of the food supply, primarily through animal feed. Yet, none of these crops were independently tested before their release on the US market and, not surprisingly, controversy dogged GM/transgenic crops and food and its commercialisation and, as more people became aware of the issues, it became hotly contested.

The EU door to GM/transgenic crops has been difficult to prise open, and in the face of such opposition, promoters of the GM industry seized upon the concept of “cisgenic”, a word that was literally invented in the course of a PhD thesis submitted to Wageningen University in the Netherlands in 2004.

“Cisgenic” is said to describe close relative breeding. It is a clever word in this context, with its scientific connotations of opposites or mirror images, one labelled with the prefix “cis-” and its mirror image, “trans-”.

From this usage in science, “cisgenic” suggests itself to be the opposite of “transgenic”. And once the c-word appeared in refereed journals, despite challenges by fellow scientists, it gained currency and began to be seen as a potential key to open the door the EU had virtually closed to GM crops.

Cisgenic, however, is a classification subset of transgenic – cisgenic clearly involves genetically engineered transferral of a gene from a different species and is unequivocally transgenic. It is the transformation process, not the source of the transferred gene, that gives rise to unpredictable effects. Cisgenic, in the case of the Teagasc GM potato, involves an agrobacterium tumescens-mediated gene insertion with a vector, all of which contribute to unpredictable effects of the transgenic process.

Meanwhile those Wageningen creatives set up a train of events to get cisgenic crops deregulated so they could be grown in compliance with GM regulations. For all biotech supporters, the potato is a perfect GM vehicle, a veritable Trojan horse, with its cultural resonance throughout northern Europe, and the fallout from a new virulent blight strain.

The Wageningen initiative secured European Commission support to the extent the European Food Safety Authority published a scientific opinion on matters cisgenic last month, a move one commentator has dubbed “political science”.

But a significant corporate involvement is evident in these EU potato circles. For example, Wageningen University’s plant section got €16.2 million from industry in 2006, 13 per cent of its total budget.

All of this has a strong bearing on Teagasc’s licence application to the Environmental Protection Agency to grow GM potatoes. Teagasc’s application uses the term “cisgenic” 48 times. However, and crucially, it does not at any point define the term.

The documented and widely acknowledged reality is that transgene technology is likely to cause unpredictable effects, effects that wouldn’t occur in many types of traditional breeding. We simply don’t know enough to know that these crops are safe. Haven’t we learned enough “late lessons” on issues such as asbestos and PCBs to be cautious in this case?

One of the side effects of having GM potatoes trialled here would be the “thin end of the wedge effect”. The Teagasc GM potato will have established the GM precedent here, undermined consumer opposition, and the EU door will be wide open to GM canola, maize, wheat and other food crops. Ireland, whose island nature gives scope to avoid cross-border GM contamination, is one of the few EU countries not growing GM crops, so the Teagasc potato trial represents a hugely significant development.

The commercial and institutional interests that promote GM foods frequently cite/exhort us to take a scientific approach to their products and research. But if the scientific method teaches us anything it is to adopt a healthy scepticism.

The deadline for objections to Teagasc’s licence application is today. Rather than becoming cheerleaders for a risky, questionable technology, perhaps now would be a good time to exercise our scepticism.