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Raw Emotion Grows in UK Debate Over Gene-Edited Crops

Will fears of climate change cause Great Britain to loosen its restrictions on genetically edited crops?

The U.K. government has just finished a fact-finding discussion with the public called a “consultation,” aiming to decide whether crops genetically edited to have desirable new traits can be sold in the country without being labeled as GMOs, a highly charged acronym that stands for “genetically modified organisms,” which have long been banned in Britain and in the rest of Europe. 

Currently, GMO products made from modified soybeans and corn have been widely grown and available for years in places like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India, and other countries. In fact, GMOs account for the vast majority of U.S. soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beet crops—but those same crops are almost nonexistent in Europe, except when used to feed livestock. 

Many have concerns about the future, as the U.K. government evaluates the findings from the consultation. On the one hand, proponents say using the cutting-edge modern bioengineering technologies is crucial for feeding billions of people this century, as the planet warms. But stalwarts for tried-and-true plant breeding methods say gene editing could give rise to dangerous mutations or to crops that could be patented by large ag companies trying to monopolize staple crops. 

Gideon Henderson, an Oxford University geochemist who represents the “pro” camp, is chief scientific advisor to the U.K. Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He said during an online panel in April held by a British NGO called the Sustainable Food Trust that gene editing will make crops more resilient in the face of climate change. 

“As climate warms, and as it already is, we’re seeing stress to our crop systems, particularly in the developing world,” he said. “Gene editing will help us build crops that can resist drought and thrive under heat stress.”

Henderson and others insist there is a difference between crops produced through gene editing and traditional GMOs. But such claims have raised hackles among anti-GMO scientists and activists who worry as much about the unexpected consequences from using relatively new genetic tools like CRISPR on food as they do about GMOs. “If [the U.K.] was to weaken its standards to match those of the United States, then it means that these genetically modified products can come into the U.K. unlabeled,” says Michael Antoniou, a professor of molecular genetics at King’s College London. “And therefore, the consumer would have no way of avoiding them. They’ll be denying the fundamental rights of people to buy and eat what they want.”

For Antoniou, the fix is already in. He sees no difference between older, first-generation GMO crops and crops produced through newer genetic engineering techniques. The consultation was a mere formality, he says, a moment’s pause on the bum-rush road to changing the British system of agriculture forever—away from traditional breeding and towards an American-style approach that favors GMO crops. He notes that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his first speech after taking office, explicitly mentioned that completing Brexit would “liberate” the nation’s biotechnology industry from anti-genetic modification laws.

“He was sending a clear message, basically to the United States, that he had every intention to change the law,” Antoniou says. “It’s really meant to open the floodgates for importation of American biotech products. The government hasn’t really hidden the fact that this consultation wasn’t really a consultation—the way they ran it, it was more of a PR exercise. It was blatant propaganda,” he concludes.

A local debate with global consequences

Sarah Evanega, who directs the Alliance for Science at Cornell University, which advocates for access to biotechnology as a way to improve agricultural yields and environmental sustainability, says that the decision about gene-edited crops in the United Kingdom is particularly important because it will influence debates around the world.

“Whatever Europe decides to do about gene editing is going to impact the decisions that are made in places like Africa,” she says. As an example of the stakes, she points to the global infestation by fall armyworms, a moth-producing pest native to the Western Hemisphere believed to be introduced into West Africa five years ago and which has rapidly spread since to sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, threatening corn, rice, millet, sorghum, and other crops.

“Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, who are at the frontlines of climate change right now, they’re the ones dealing with fall armyworms. They’re the ones dealing with record-breaking heat because of drought, erratic rains—they’re dealing with climate change in a way that Michael [Antoniou] is not.”

Many argue that the genetically modified products from Big Ag have already yielded environmental benefits.

Part of the passion underlying the debate stems from concerns about how the roughly 190 million hectares of genetically modified crops planted around the world, mostly corn and soybeans, have been developed and marketed. Monsanto, which the German conglomerate Bayer acquired in 2018, became a corporate pariah—and the subject of Neil Young protest songs—for its litigious pursuit of licensing fees from farmers for the use of crops that were modified to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, sold under the trade name “Roundup.” Bayer recently agreed to put aside some $10 billion to settle legal claims that Roundup caused cancer.  

In the end, what may drive the debate moving forward could be global concerns rather than local ones. Many argue that the genetically modified products from Big Ag have already yielded environmental benefits. A 2020 study by British economists estimates that the corn and soy genetically modified to be toxic to pests or resistant to glyphosate reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 15 million cars in a year. The reduced threat of weeds and pests meant there was less need to drive farm vehicles over those 190 million hectares, spraying carbon-intensive pesticides or tilling the land.

Antoniou claims, however, that the study shouldn’t be taken at face value because it fails to account for the harmful effects of those same GMO crops—glyphosate in particular is incompatible with sustainability, he says. He cites a Tufts University study showing that glyphosate has harmed bees, killed monarch butterflies, depleted fish populations, produced resistant weeds that eliminate the no-tillage advantage, and may be harmful to farm workers. 

It’s worth noting that there are confusing reports on the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate—but a joint report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization as well as studies in the U.S. and Europe have all concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer at the levels one would typically experience it in food and water systems.

Evanega says the anti-GMO movement and the attention it brings to the issue have had the unintended effect of making gene engineering too difficult for all but the largest companies like Bayer/Monsanto. She notes that a host of genetically modified staple crops, including blight-resistant potatoes and bananas and drought-resistant maize, have been developed in the public sector, but are not getting planted by farmers because of suspicions that altering DNA is unsafe. Large companies, on the other hand, have the resources to push through the regulatory hurdles associated with GMO crops in order to pursue the massive global market for corn and soybeans, while smaller companies, pursuing less lucrative staples, cannot take the risk. 

“So who’s benefited from all of the ruckus about [GMO] crops?” says Evanega. “The same big companies that [environmentalists] claim to hate. The public sector and small and medium businesses haven’t been able to use this tool to innovate.”

As positive examples of the humanitarian potential of gene-edited crops, Evanega points to a pest-resistant eggplant currently being farmed in Bangladesh, which has reduced pesticide use by 39 percent while increasing yields by 42 percent. She also notes that Nigeria has recently approved an insect-resistant cowpea, a particularly important staple in a society where many people cannot afford meat. Earlier this spring, the European Commission published a report finding that, in spite of concerns about labelling and safety, gene editing could help achieve sustainability goals associated with the European Green Deal, which seeks to create a carbon footprint of zero by 2050. The E.U. will now give member states to time respond, and then undertake public consultation. In February, the agricultural minister of France, a country with much more public skepticism about genetically modified foods than the United Kingdom, said that gene-edited crops should be treated differently than GMOs.

“How” versus “what”

The debate is about how genetic engineering occurs as much as what the process produces. In the 90s, scientists created the blockbuster GMO pest- and herbicide-resistant crops by transplanting new genes to recombine in the target plant’s DNA. For example, the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria, that produces the pesticide in “BT” corn, evolved to live in the soil. Scientists introduced its genes into the corn and soy DNA so that the plants emit insecticidal proteins in their leaves, creating a plant that hasn’t been seen in nature before. Many anti-GMO activists were affronted at the idea of a “transgenic” crop that brings DNA from one organism into another. 

Wary of the damaging stigma of the GMO label, advocates for the new generation of gene editing typically change attributes by turning existing genes within the plant on or off, rather than transgenically transplanting a gene from one species of plant into another. They also say that gene editing, using 21st-century advances in analyzing and editing DNA, are far more accurate and easy to control than conventional breeding. They’re also more precise than the 25-year-old recombinant DNA processes that resulted in BT-soybeans or Roundup Ready corn.

And the new methods are allowing even smaller companies to create plants that are entirely new.

Winter crops are coming—maybe?

Nobody can argue against the world’s growing need for agricultural resilience as we head further into a century that promises huge population growth amid increasing food crises. Climate change threatens to unleash more extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, cold snaps, or heat waves—and to enable pathogenic blights or crop-gobbling insect swarms, like the desert locusts that plagued East Africa in 2020. Even as those threats emerge, the world population is projected to almost double to 10 billion by the year 2050, making the need for food security ever more pronounced.

For proponents of genetically modified crops, climate change is the catalyst that crystallizes the need for hardier strains of crops. Some go so far as to say that the scientific debate about GMOs is “tired” and now more or less “over.”

A photograph of a farmer's daughter waving her shawl to chase away swarms of locusts from her crops in Kenya.
In Kitui county, Kenya, a farmer’s daughter waves her shawl to chase away swarms of locusts from crops. AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

“I have a hard time [with a] sort of zero tolerance attitude with these crops, especially when those attitudes come from people claiming to be environmentalists,” Evanega says.

But GMO opponents like Antoniou remain unconvinced. The answer, he says, is to change our food delivery systems in the direction of “agroecology”—reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and planting a diverse range of plant strains, to build resilience into the system. At the very least, he says, any crops produced using genetic editing must be labeled as such.

The U.K. consultation comes at a time when investing in agricultural technology has suddenly become hotter than ever. Food and agricultural businesses attracted $22.3 billion in investments last year, double the 2019 figure. In the face of the pandemic, meal kit and food delivery services attracted the greatest share of interest, but higher-tech approaches like vertical farms and meat alternatives were also winners. Some 112 different plant-based alternatives to meat, eggs, and dairy went to market last year, reflecting over $3 billion in investment. But a billowing money tree is not the only motivator. For a host of biotechnological entrepreneurs who think they can do well by doing good, the hope is to engineer new types of crops that truly do make food systems more sustainable, helping to end hunger and counter the effects of climate change.

For instance, with climate change projected to drive more extreme weather, including summer heat spikes, a Minnesota company called Calyxt is trying to tweak the genes of oat plants to grow during the winter. That’s because when oat plants get too hot in the field, they get stressed and their yields decline. The high-quality oats that Americans eat for breakfast tend to come from Canada, where summers are cooler. “Winter oats,” in which certain genes that cause the oat plant to be quiescent in cold temperatures are deactivated, will not only open new acres to oat production, it will give farmers a winter cover crop that will sequester carbon and reduce the need for carbon-intensive fertilizer on that land. 

This type of genetically edited crop, designed to be resilient in the face of a warming planet, could be imported to the United Kingdom if the rules governing genetically modified crops are relaxed—exactly what was under consideration in the public consultation. Because it does not involve the transplant of DNA from a foreign species, however, it would not need to be labeled as GMO or bioengineered under U.S. law.

“It depends what British consumers tell us,” says Sara Ryder, chief marketing officer for Calyxt. “We’re not forcing products on anybody.”

“It’s like spaghetti that you throw at the wall and hope some of it sticks—these arguments that there are unknown consequences with unknown effects.”

But even as the battle lines are redrawn due to climate change, the opponents of genetically engineered crops show no signs of backing down. Antoniou thinks the risk from winter oats and similar types of plants outweigh the benefits because of the possibility of introducing unintended mutations into the wild. In the worst case, he says, gene editing could inadvertently create novel toxins and allergens that would poison animals—even humans.

Travis Frey, the chief technical officer for Calyxt, disagrees about the dangers of unintended mutations, because of the vigorous safety testing the company must undertake. “We have an obligation to demonstrate that the crop does not contain off-target changes,” he says, referring to unintended mutations that would occur to some part of the plant genome separate from the genes being modified. “So I actually think that consumers should feel confident.”

“We know a lot, down to the base pair,” says Evanega of the Cornell Alliance for Science. “We have bioinformatics, we have genome sequences. We have really smart tools to make very subtle changes.” 

She dismisses the arguments of the industry’s opponents as unsophisticated fear mongering. “It’s like spaghetti that you throw at the wall and hope some of it sticks—these arguments that there are unknown consequences with unknown effects.”

Antoniou doesn’t buy it. “If you did a proper analysis of those products—in depth, molecular profiling, protein profiling, metabolite profiling, small biochemical profiling, compositional profiling—I can guarantee you that something produced [through] natural breeding and something produced through gene editing will have a different composition,” says Antoniou. “I’ll wager a month’s salary on this.”

An industry on the cusp

For Pairwise, a North Carolina startup which recently attracted a $90 million series B round of funding, the pitch is no longer focused on thorny climate debates. The company, which counts Harvard CRISPR pioneers David Liu and Feng Zhang among its founders, is hoping to develop genetically edited fruit and vegetables that would be more affordable, more widely available, and taste as good if not better than anything similar in the grocery store. Pairwise CEO Tom Adams points to the runaway popularity of small mandarins (marketed as Halos or Cuties in the United States), as well as blueberry production in the United States, which has increased by five times over the past 10 years, thanks to conventionally bred varieties that grow year round. He says that convenience and appeal matter more to consumers than how exactly the crop came to be at the supermarket.

“The U.K. is no better than the United States,” says Adams. “You have probably 10 percent of people who eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. And you’ve all been being told all your life that you should eat more fruits and vegetables, and yet, it doesn’t really make a difference.”

And so his high-profile scientific team has turned to using CRISPR tools to create next-gen greens. The first Pairwise product expected to come on the market is a mustard green, but with an enzyme deactivated to get rid of a harsh horseradish flavor that people have traditionally cooked out. The idea is to have a healthy leafy green filled with nutrients but with a taste and texture similar to spring mix or baby spinach.

“There’s nothing wrong with our current crops,” Antoniou says. “I’m not asking for a ban [on gene editing], I’m just saying, keep things regulated as they are. That way things get safety testing, and they’re labeled.”

Guy Singh-Watson, an organic farmer in Southwest England, said on a public panel that he is not categorically opposed to gene-edited crops, but he has doubts. He would consider using a gene-edited blight-resistant potato, in part because the blight-resistant varieties produced by conventional breeding “taste horrible.” But he would want to buy the seeds from an independent breeder, rather than a company like Monsanto. The idea of building a thriving gene-editing industry in the United Kingdom has some appeal, he admitted, with a certain English self-deprecation.

“This seems to be something we’re good at,” Singh-Watson added. “God, we need something.”

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