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Genetically modified foods

Now more GMOs are reaching the consumers

More genetically modified foods are on their way to the consumers after the EU granted permission to import GM maize, soya, rape and cotton. But are the genetically modified crops safe? And should we grow them in Denmark?

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 9/13/2021

A few weeks ago, the European Commission authorised that the EU countries should be allowed to import 10 genetically modified plant varieties, thus paving the way for significantly more GM crops to reach the consumers’ dining tables and the farmers’ feeding buckets.

These plant varieties are maize, soya, rape and cotton varieties.

The authorisation is sensational given that until now the EU has otherwise been almost totally dismissive of GM. To date, the EU has allowed the import of only three varieties and one for cultivation in the EU: The maize variety Mon810, which has had a gene inserted so that it becomes toxic to the small, brown moth; the European corn borer.

Green organisations say no

While many other parts of the world have embraced GM crops, there is widespread opposition to GM in Europe.

When the European Commission in the spring raised the issue of relaxing the rules for GM cultivation in the EU, it triggered a prompt common ‘No!’ from 162 European green organisations, including the Danish NOAH, the Vegetarian Society of Denmark, Demeterforbundet i Danmark (the Demeter Association in Denmark), Foreningen for Biodynamisk Jordbrug (the Danish Association of Biodynamic Farming), Frie Bønder – Levende Land (Free Farmers – Living Land), Grøn Hverdag (Green Everyday Life), Landsforeningen Praktisk Økologi (the National Association of Practical Ecology) and Slow Food Copenhagen.

A cardinal point in the discussions is safety: can we be sure that GM plants are not dangerous?

No signs of danger from 20 years of research

- When we look at the past approx. 20 years of research, there’s no sign that eating GM crops is dangerous to our health, says Mikkel Girke Jørgensen, Associate Professor of synthetic biology and Head of Research at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Southern Denmark.

He further believes that it would be safe to grow more GM crops in the EU.

- There’s also no evidence that it’s riskier to genetically modify a crop than to modify it with traditional plant breeding methods, he says.

When taking a stand on GM today, it’s important to take into account that the techniques have changed significantly.

Mikkel Girke Jørgensen, Associate Professor

The past 20 years, to which he refers, have brought about great changes in the ways in which a crop can be genetically modified:

During the first years, the technique involved inserting genetic material from one species into another – genes were ‘spliced’ in, hence the term gene splicing, thus providing organisms with new properties.

What was that about? Were researchers now going to interfere in nature’s own design? Make themselves masters and start designing new plants? New animals? New people? Perhaps it was the incalculable consequences that made the opposition grow – because it did grow, and especially in Europe.

Researchers are no longer performing gene splicing

- When taking a stand on GM today, it’s important to take into account that the techniques have changed significantly. Today we can be much more precise – even so precise that in some cases we can simply modify a plant species’ own genes. In my eyes, this is a very big difference, says Mikkel Girke Jørgensen.

One of the most common new techniques is the CRISPR technique, which was developed in 2012. With this, it is possible to remove, replace or insert DNA from the species itself or other species with much more precision. It is also possible to make small changes, such as turning genes on and off.

Who has the rights to new GM crops?

From a purely biotechnological point of view, Mikkel Girke Jørgensen is not worried about letting CRISPR plants occupy European soil. But it does worry him to think about who gets the rights to the plants, and especially how those rights will be managed.

It is possible to take out a patent on a GM plant variety. In contrast to traditionally bred crops, they are a technical invention and can thus be patented.

According to Crop Life International, developing a new crop would quickly amount to USD 130 million, and not many companies have the resources to do so if there is no prospect of profits. So without patents and ownership, there will be no incentive to develop GM crops for the benefit of the world, the companies say.

The modified plants can give us much more food on the table than we have ever had before. And with rising population and climate change, we need them.

Mikkel Girke Jørgensen, Associate Professor

But with only a few major players in the market, there is a risk of monopolies. Today, four companies hold 60 per cent of the seed market, and in the case of GM seeds, many conditions are imposed on farmers who want to grow them.

A classic example is that farmers can only buy sterile seeds, so they have to buy new seeds every year. They cannot save some of the harvest for next year’s seeds. There are also frequent stories in the media about large companies, such as Monsanto, that sue small farmers for breaches of the purchase terms.

- I think that such stories have a pretty big influence on people’s perception of GM crops, says Mikkel Girke Jørgensen.

The world needs more food

- We as a society must ensure a regulation of GM crops that recognises that some large companies invest a great deal of money in developing these GM crops – and they should be allowed to make money from this – but the GM crops must be accessible to all, he says.

So, people should abstract from their indignation over big business and instead work for a world with GM crops – which, mind you, must belong to all of us, he says.

- The modified plants can give us much more food on the table than we have ever had before. And with a rising population and climate change, we need them.

The Danish Council of Ethics will not reject GM foods

The Danish Council of Ethics is of the opinion that it is actually unethical to reject GM foods, and in 2019, the council published the statement ‘GMOs and ethics in a new era’, in which it recommends:

‘It is ethically problematic to reject GMO varieties if they can help alleviate or solve significant problems and there are no good arguments for rejecting them’.

- We don’t have a food shortage in Europe, but many other parts of the world do, and I do understand if in these parts they think ‘rather GM crops than no crops", says Mikkel Girke Jørgensen.

Success or disaster?

  • The GM rice variety Golden Rice is designed to produce vitamin A, which is vital for children’s development. The first country in the world, the Philippines, has just given permission for cultivation. Greenpeace, among others, is against and considers both Golden Rice and other GM crops to be environmentally unjustifiable.

Further information about Golden Rice

Meet the researcher

Mikkel Girke Jørgensen is an Associate Professor and Head of Research at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He is also Head of the talent programme iGEM, where students develop GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Contact

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Editing was completed: 13.09.2021