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Human DNA SequenceThere is widespread concern about genetic engineering, and now the new generation CRISPR gene editing. People are becoming worried that labelling of food containing modified genes for human consumption may be removed and food standards lowered after Brexit. If the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, the UK must abide by EU rules until December 2020, which states food containing GMO’s must be labelled. If the UK leaves without a deal, the relevant regulations will temporarily pass into UK law from 1st November 2019. However, these rules will then be open to immediate amendments with potentially far-reaching effects.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR-Cas 9, or CRISPR for short, stands for Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats. It is an idea that genetic engineers have copied from bacterial communities defending themselves against viruses and foreign DNA. Cas 9 is a protein, that with the help of guide RNA, recognises and 'cuts and pastes' the sequence of DNA to be edited.

Just like the previous generation of genetic engineering uses a viral promoter to add itself to a DNA sequence, gene editing can change more than the target genes. The possibility of recombinant DNA producing changes to a large number of genes and making unwanted edits to other sequences is very high using this technology.

New Revolutions from Old Paradigms?

A warning that things are about to change came in January this year when the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove unveiled a vision for “the world’s fourth agricultural revolution”, which he said will guarantee the future of the UK as a major global food producer. He cited gene editing as central to speeding up evolution to create crops that will be “higher-yielding crops and more environmentally sustainable,” which is, in itself, a non sequitur.

What Gove omitted to say is that GM crops and seeds produced by genetic engineering and editing are primarily designed to withstand spraying of Roundup/Glyphosate herbicide, thus increasing the sale of chemicals and fertilisers, and to sell seeds patented by the corporations taking control away from growers who must buy fresh seed every year. As the agri-chemical corporations continue to morph and merge in billion dollar deals, global Governments, including the UK’s, do next to nothing to regulate their activities.

News from Everywhere

Elsewhere the unintended and often irreversible consequences of industrial agriculture are evident. India’s so called “Green Revolution” has displaced traditional farmlands and left soils depleted and damaged, the poorest farmers in debt and an epidemic of farmer suicides. In the US and Canada, the plains and prairies are awash with glyphosate resistant super-weeds or wild plants that have crossed genes with edited crops. And, as a direct result of industrial-agri activity, an unprecedented global decline. in the numbers of invertebrate, insect, amphibian and bird species is a reality.

In 2018 the European Court of Justice ruled the new group of genetic engineering techniques including genome editing CRISPR, and new breeding techniques (NBTs). must be classified as GM. The ruling covered by an extant EU Directive 2001/18/EC recognises the Precautionary Principle. And, because living organisms reproduce the impact of their release may be irreversible. Furthermore, given that there is no history of its safe use, GM must be subject to regulation, traceability and consumer labelling.

No benefits to consumers from GM crops

Inevitably, Gove dismissed the Court ruling and attempted to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by saying gene editing is not the same as genetic engineering. His assertion that global food poverty, scarcity, pollution and climate change can all be solved by the UK taking advantage of Brexit to export British produce at best serves the financial interests of agri-corporations or, at worst, he is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Gove’s industrial vision not only lacks strategy, but ignores the values of true food security and sustainability: low input agriculture, local food production and consumption, reduced food miles and traceability.

In addition, the UK is threatened by lower food standards from trade agreements with the US that already sanction imports of chlorinated chicken.

How about Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic Biology, a technology also favoured by the UK’s pro-GM government, engineers new genomes and re-designs existing genomes on a grand scale. Synthetic biologists work primarily with the bacteria E.coli and bakers yeast to rapidly replicate organisms and transplant one bacterium into another. This is known as Genetically Enhanced Microbes (GEMs), used in synthetic DNA, biofuels, vitamins, cosmetics and antimalarial drugs.

Viruses like polio can be engineered from scratch making synthetic biology a deadly weapon in the wrong hands. Synthetic DNA copies are machine-made, freeze dried, and can be ordered online and delivered to your door!

Engineering growth hormones is another contentious area of industrial farming. Animals and farmed fish are modified to consume 250% more food than their natural counterparts. Recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH) produced with yeast used as a food additive in cattle feed in the US is presently banned in the UK. A synthetic additive called astaxanthin in fishmeal imbue farmed salmon with its’ characteristic bright pink hue.

Both natural and synthetic bovine growth hormone stimulate milk production by increasing levels of another hormone known as insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). Initial studies found higher levels of IGF-1 can lead to the development of breast, bowel and prostate cancer, but later studies did not confirm these findings.

GM Animals, Humans and Insects

Attempts have been made to produce human proteins in cows milk to be fed to human babies and bovine milk fed to piglets by GM sows. Only high levels of embryonic loss or damage and a lack of success in speeding up breeding cycles has limited the creation of GM farm animals to date.

Insects have been engineered so they cannot mate by using the sterile insect technique (SIT). But researchers at Yale University found genes from engineered mosquitoes have crossed into the wild population which may make hybrid mosquitoes even more resilient and destructive to human health. Dr. Mae-wan Ho, a geneticist and outspoken critic of genetic engineering warned about the hazards of horizontal gene transfer back in the 1990’s. 

Last November twin human embryos were edited using CRISPR to confer resistance to HIV in China. The lead researcher at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen only gave official notice of the work long after starting it, but had warned participants that gene editing in humans was new and carried risks.

Brexit is a chance to improve food standards and include labelling on produce derived from GM-fed animals. To ensure transparency and the right to know what’s in our food campaign groups Beyond and GM Freeze have joined forces to produce Don’t Hide What’s Inside our Food. Please support them by signing the petition