Genetic modification - pipette and test tube

Dossier

Genetic modification

The debate on genetic modification flares up on a regular basis. Wageningen University & Research would like to contribute to a constructive debate. For this, we look not only at the technical possibilities of genetic modification, but also at the effects of this technique on human health, the environment and the agricultural sector. Laws and regulations also play an important role.

What is genetic modification?

Genetic modification is a technique to change the characteristics of a plant, animal or micro-organism by transferring a piece of DNA from one organism to a different organism. This is done through targeted removal of the desired genes from the DNA of one organism and adding them to the other organism. This technique has for example been used to develop fungi and bacteria that produce medicines.

In plants, we make the distinction between cisgenesis and transgenesis within genetic modification. Cisgenesis is the transfer of genetic material derived from a related plant. For example, Wageningen UR has utilised this method to use genes from wild potato plants to make consumer potatoes more resilient to phytophthora. Transgenesis is the transfer of genetic material from non-related species.

What are the purposes of genetic modification?

Adding desired properties to living organisms, such as resistance to disease or drought, can also be achieved by crossing species with each other. But interbreeding also brings unwanted properties. The process to get rid of those unwanted properties again through interbreeding takes decades. Returning to the potato example, there are wild potato species that are resistant to diseases which consumer potatoes are unable to protect against. By crossing a wild potato species with a cultivated one, seedlings are produced with a gene package of which only half originates from the wild potato. To make the plant material usable for food production again through interbreeding with the cultivated potato, about thirty years would be needed. Using genetic modification, a new variation with exactly the right properties can be developed in a short time, as only the desired gene is transferred.

Are there disadvantages to genetic modification?

The technology, which allows adjustment of the properties of plants, animals or micro-organisms in a specified way, has no particular disadvantages. It is however important that the technology be used properly. There are national and international agreements regarding this. In practice, plant breeding or genetic modification could change many more properties of organisms than is desirable. This is why each property is reviewed by experts on the national and international level, and permitted adjustments are established.

The legislation surrounding the technology also has disadvantages. Companies that develop a new plant variety can apply for patents. This patent disallows others from using this new variety for further breeding. This enables companies that have developed a new plant type through genetic modification to continue selling this variety for years. And because the modified species often have excellent properties, farmers will also want them. In this way, monocultures can arise. In conventional breeding there are, of course, always varieties preferred by farmers, but because the varieties that have been created through breeding may be further bred by others (this is only the plant breeder's right, not a patent) there is a constant flow of new varieties on the market.

Can genetic modification replace conventional breeding?

This is absolutely not the case. The use of cross breeding will always be important to be able to guarantee a wide variety of agricultural products. Wageningen University & Research emphasises that genetic modification, like all other technologies, should be fitted in a wide, agro-ecological farming practice. Good agricultural practice is always the starting point. Genetic modification is just one of the pillars that can be used to optimise the food supply while keeping it sustainable.

In addition, consumers should always have the choice whether or not they want food that contains genetically modified ingredients. It should not be the case that a few large seed producers decide what people eat worldwide.

On what scale is genetic modification already applied?

In 2010, genetically modified crops were grown on more than 140 million hectares worldwide. That is an area almost as large as the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy together. This cultivation takes place in both developed countries as well as several major developing countries. There is hardly any cultivation of genetically modified crops within the EU. That is expected to change in the coming years. However, import of genetically modified products already takes place on a large scale, products such as soy beans, corn and cotton. Genetically modified crops in livestock feed are already widely used. Eighty per cent of the soy produced worldwide - an important raw material for animal feed - is genetically modified.

Agricultural animals are not genetically modified in Europe. In several countries outside Europe this is already happening, but these animals are not used for production yet.

Modification of micro-organisms is mainly used in pharmaceutical applications.

How does the consumer know whether there are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present in a product?

If GMOs are used in food, this is indicated on the packaging. In milk, meat and eggs produced from animals that have eaten genetically modified feed, there is no requirement to list this on the label.

Sometimes livestock feed that has not or not yet been admitted to the EU market ends up in Europe. This is why there is continuous sampling at various points in the chain - from ports to farms - to trace GMOs and to detect where they originate from. RIKILT Wageningen University & Research has many methods to detect different GMOs and develops methods to be able to show all GMOs in a sample with a single analysis.

To avoid mixing GMOs with non-GMOs there are strict rules, for example the minimum distance between fields with non-genetically modified crops and genetically modified crops. This is to prevent possible cross-fertilisation.

Who determines whether the use of GMOs is safe?

Food safety must be guaranteed in the long term. This means that companies that develop new varieties through genetic modification must have those tested before they may be marketed. Testing is done in Europe by all 27 member states, who send their reviews to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the scientific body that has the final judgement on the files. The decision-making lies with politics at the national and European level. For the tests that companies must perform within the EU, directives from the EFSA are available. For example, tests carried out to see how much the gene added to a plant is expressed. Furthermore, research is done to determine whether the proteins may be toxic or potentially lead to allergic reactions. There are also tests to determine whether the modification affects the nutritional value of the plant. Besides tests on food safety, environmental considerations are also included.

In the Netherlands, RIKILT Wageningen University & Research develops methods to test food and feed safety more efficiently in the future by using advanced analytical techniques. Differences between the genetically modified plants and similar conventional plants are then presented in a single analysis.

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