In-depth interview with Dr Michael Antoniou spells out the dangers for our personal and planetary health
Below is the transcript of a fascinating interview with Michael Antoniou - a scientist who has been highly outspoken about the dangers involved in deregulating gene-edited crops. Dr Antoniou is not someone who can easily be dismissed as ignorant of genetics or unfamiliar with the technology involved. As he explains in the interview, he is a career-long molecular geneticist who has studied the structure and functions of genes for decades. And, as part of that research, he has long used “all manner of genetic engineering technologies,” including gene editing.
In fact, it is his deep familiarity with gene editing that makes him so concerned about the way it is being used in agriculture, as he explained in a recent edition of the BBC’s popular Countryfile programme. More specifically, it’s why he rejects all those claims about gene editing’s supposed precision: “The gene editing tools in question here invariably produce unintended DNA damage,” he told the interviewer, and that can “end up changing the biochemistry and the composition of the crop and that could include the production of novel toxins and allergens.”
In a Scottish daily paper, Dr Antoniou spelt out more about the ways in which the gene editing process can lead to such unintended outcomes: “The gene-editing tool DNA can fragment and bits of it can randomly insert in many locations around the DNA of the plant, and that is not being checked for. At each one of the stages of the gene-editing process, you introduce unintended genetic alterations running into the hundreds of thousands. Even the process of growing plant cells in the laboratory introduces hundreds of sites of DNA damage. You end up with a plant that carries a high burden of unintended DNA damage with unknown downstream consequences.”
This is why Dr Antoniou is critical of the tendency of pro-GM scientists, the UK government and a compliant media to mislead people about the level of complexity and risk involved in gene editing, never mind attempts to pretend it is not even a form of genetic modification.
Michael Antoniou also feels that it is his familiarity with genetic engineering in a medical context that helps him recognise the cavalier way in which it is being deployed in agriculture. As he explains in the following interview, its clinical use is highly regulated, highly contained, carefully monitored, and carefully targeted. One might also add that informed consent is fundamental to medical ethics and the law. By contrast, in agriculture novel organisms are being created with essentially the same imprecise technology and are then released into the environment and the food supply without, in the case of deregulation, either safety checks or even labelling.
But, as Patrick Holden draws out in this interview, Michael Antoniou’s area of knowledge is not confined to genetic engineering. Dr Antoniou has also used his expertise as a health scientist to research not just the health risks associated with GM foods but also those of the pesticide most closely associated with them: glyphosate-based herbicides. In fact, as Michael Antoniou himself notes, his research lab at King’s College London is “one of the leading groups in the world… in investigating glyphosate and Roundup toxicity, and we've seen some very worrying outcomes from our studies.”
What makes this interview particularly compelling is that the podcast host Patrick Holden, as a farmer himself, the former Director of the Soil Association (1995-2010) and the co-founder with Anthony Rodale of the Sustainable Food Trust, brings a wealth of knowledge of farming and the food industry to this lively but in-depth exploration of Michael Antoniou’s concerns, expertise and research.
You may prefer to listen to the interview as a podcast, rather than read the transcript, or even listen and read simultaneously. Either way, in our view, it’s definitely worth a listen.
In conversation with Dr Michael Antoniou
Sustainable Food Trust, April 28 2022
Patrick is joined by Dr Michael Antoniou, leading Molecular Geneticist and Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at Kings College London.
A must-listen for anyone interested in learning more about the impact genetic modification, gene editing and pesticides, particularly the widely used herbicide glyphosate, are having on our personal and planetary health.
(Transcript by GMWatch. NB: This conversation took place about six weeks ago so the legislative process for deregulating gene-edited crops and animals has moved much further along since that time. See here for Dr Antoniou’s specific concerns about the current Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Bill)
Intro: This week, we hear from Dr Michael Antoniou, a leading molecular geneticist and head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King's College London. Patrick and Michael discuss concerns surrounding gene editing, how this applies to an agricultural context, and the implications for our health.
Patrick Holden: Michael, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. Now, we've known each other for a long time, but the circumstances which triggered this particular discussion are important. Perhaps you would like to describe them.
Michael Antoniou: Thank you, Patrick. Yes, it's my pleasure as well to be joining you in this podcast and I believe we'll be covering some very important information for the public. What's happened just in the last few days is that the government's statutory instrument which aims to take the first steps at basically deregulating the use of, initially, gene-editing genetic engineering technologies in an agricultural context, basically was passed virtually unopposed in the House of Lords, which means that it will go back now to the Commons and in three weeks will become law. And this will make it almost a free-for-all for developers of gene-edited crops to conduct field trials in a literally unregulated manner, which is for me a great concern because the point is about gene editing technologies is that they are... nowhere near as precise (as claimed) – in fact, they are imprecise, and they carry major risks to both health and the environment.
Patrick Holden: Just remind me the degree to which the government has actually asked the people what they think about all this.
Michael Antoniou: Yes, the government put out a consultation last year asking people to comment on among other things, whether they thought gene editing should be regulated or not. And there was a massive response from not only individuals but also organizations to that consultation and it turned out that 99 per cent of the respondents essentially were still in favour of retaining regulation for gene edited products, as there is for the old-style genetic engineering transgenic crops. Only one per cent of respondents said that they just wanted everything deregulated and just be a free-for-all.* Now, the government, nevertheless, chose to go with what one per cent of respondents said, i.e. for deregulation rather than take on board what the 99 per cent of respondents wanted, which was to retain regulation.
Patrick Holden: So that's rather shocking, isn't it? That the government really ignored the response to their own consultation. Why do you think that was? I mean, do you think they already decided that they wanted to roll these technologies out? What was going on?
Michael Antoniou: Again, this is a very good point. Well, even though – I should say that part of the consultation was asking respondents to put forward evidence-based science as to why regulation would still be necessary, and that's what I did. I responded and I provided masses of excellent scientific evidence showing how gene editing is not precise and why damage can still happen. So despite all this evidence, the government still basically it ignored it. There was no acknowledgement. Interestingly, the government did not acknowledge the evidence of potential harm from gene editing and went down the deregulation route.
Why is that the case? My feeling is, because there is no scientific reason for that, I have to look elsewhere for that reason. And the reason for me is for political and commercial reasons. The United Kingdom basically is putting an awful lot of hope on a trade deal with the United States to make up for the fact that we won't have such close economic ties with the European Union since Brexit. So, in other words, the United Kingdom has to align its regulation of GM and gene editing with the United States to allow the free flow both ways of these types of products. And so I think that is the real driver behind it. It’s for these political and commercial reasons rather than for the science that tells you: you must keep regulation in place and do it properly.
Patrick Holden: Now, I'd like to establish your scientific credentials and learn a little bit more about your back story. Now, I said you were a leading molecular geneticist, but actually your field of work has been in gene therapy and clinical use of these technologies. So it would be fair to say, would it not, that you are an expert in the field and its application, but you have deep concerns about its use in agriculture? Is that right?
Michael Antoniou: That's correct, Patrick. Although the same technologies are used for both clinical development of gene-based medicines as are being used for agricultural applications – and therefore both have the same risks associated with them, what we find is that in a medical context those risks are more fully acknowledged and we have a very good strict regulatory system in place there to make sure that anything that goes into clinical trials using gene-based medicines has been thoroughly tested and will go through multiple trials before it can possibly be approved for routine use in the clinic. We find though on the other side, things are going in the opposite direction with the same technologies in an agricultural context.
Patrick Holden: There will be people listening to this discussion who are pro-gene editing and genetic engineering. And that's wonderful, we want them to listen. But I think they might take the view that you are a rather dyed-in-the-wool and ideologically committed campaigner against these technologies. So, let us go back a step and establish your, as I said, your scientific credentials. Tell me about your CV – shortened version. How did you get into this field? What was your training?
Michael Antoniou: I'm basically a career-long molecular geneticist where I've studied the structure and functions of genes for decades. And as part of that research, I've used all manner of genetic engineering technologies, and I've used my discoveries to develop gene-based medicines or for industrial production of protein pharmaceuticals
Patrick Holden: But where did you study?
Michael Antoniou: My undergraduate degree was at the University of Oxford in biochemistry. I then did my PhD at the University of Reading. The bulk of my years – before I set up my own group – was at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, a Medical Research Council facility. It no longer exists, but I was there for 10 years. And then in 1994. I joined the medical school at Guy's Hospital, which is now part of King's College London, to set up my own group. So since 1994, I've been conducting my own independent research in basic molecular genetics, as we call it, which is how genes are organized and how they’re controlled, and I've used these insights to develop gene-based medicines. And I've worked closely with industry. I'd like to emphasize, I've worked closely with industry as well. I even have patents to my name. You know, I want to emphasize this because people might think I'm, I'm somehow against the use of genetic engineering technologies – far from it. As you could see, I've actually profited from it over the years in more ways than one.
Patrick Holden: Well, that's fascinating. It's always interested me this issue of scientific impartiality, because it's always struck me that, you know, whoever the scientist is, whoever we are, we come with our own frailties, our own emotional and intellectual convictions and, of course, baggage. And I believe, and I’d be interested to hear your response to this, that as long as we are honest with ourselves about where we come from, it may well be that we have some stances on issues. But if we are rigorous, we can still be scientific, and we can still be impartial in the face of the evidence. And I think that this is a very important theme just to explore briefly, because there will be people out there, as I've already said, who think that you carry an ideology and that it won't be shaken by new evidence. So what would you say to all that?
Michael Antoniou: I fully agree with you Patrick. Two things for me. (We need to be) transparent about who we are, what our position is, but also we need to be true to the science. And bearing in mind that… the basic science that underpins any technological development is constantly evolving. And as a result, we need to be true to the advances in science. So that if at one point, based on the available science, we may think a certain technological advance is a good idea, because we think we know enough to predict the outcomes, but then, as the science progresses, we find out that: well, in the context of this much broader, more comprehensive, scientific understanding, perhaps this technological advance isn’t such a good idea anymore. We need to have the courage to be able to say, “No, we shouldn't go down that route”, or “We need to change”, because there are unacceptable risks associated with that.
Patrick Holden: And, of course, now we're getting to the point of the discussion relating to challenging of orthodoxies. And I think it would be fair to say that the orthodox scientific community believe, and have believed for many years, that innovation in the field of agricultural genetics and seeds, and all the things that go with that, is a good thing because it's science based. And it enables us to speed up our understanding of how we can grow more food, perhaps with less inputs, etc., etc. So, so far so good, but then people like you come along and you express doubts about the wisdom of some of the things we are doing. So, perhaps just to start with – because I think a lot of people would be listening to this, could you describe in a very simple way, perhaps a couple of sentences, what genetic engineering is and then move on to gene editing, which of course is in the news, as you said, and describe the difference between gene editing and genetic engineering? Or you can do it the other way around, if you like?
Michael Antoniou: Yes, gene editing is just under the broad umbrella of genetic engineering. But yes, these are very good points. Basically genetic engineering of crops or even animals is an artificial laboratory-based procedure that doesn't involve any natural breeding. You literally, for example, you grow plant material in the laboratory and you artificially either introduce foreign genes into the plant cells or… using gene editing, you manipulate the genes that are there already. And then from this plant material you grow up whole new plants and propagate them from that point onwards.
Patrick Holden: I understand that. So why is that more risky, or why does it pose potential threats that, let's call it, “natural breeding processes” do not? Can you explain that simply?
Michael Antoniou: Hmm, certainly. The genetic engineering procedure, and this includes gene editing, has the potential to damage the DNA, damage the genetic material and makeup of the plant, in unintended ways at multiple stages in that procedure. So that at the end of the process, you end up with combinations of gene functions that do not exist naturally. And if you alter gene function, you automatically alter the biochemistry of the plant. And altering the biochemistry can… included within that altered biochemistry can be the production of novel toxins and allergens. And as a health scientist, that is my main concern.
Patrick Holden: Let's now go down to earth, as it were, and zoom in on the first generation of genetically modified crops, namely the Roundup Ready corn and soy which is grown now all over the world, well all over the Americas anyway, and in other parts of the world too. Now, applying that understanding to those particular crops, what would you say about the risks associated with the organisms that they are?
Michael Antoniou: Through the mechanisms I've just described: in these Roundup Ready or glyphosate-tolerant genetically engineered crops, like soy and corn/maize, you've added a foreign gene into the plant through a completely artificial procedure, which, first of all, (means) you've got a new combination of genes there, because you've added a foreign gene. But in addition to that, there are these uncontrolled processes that result in widespread damage to the DNA of the organism, altering its biochemistry.
And my work in my own laboratory has actually shown this. Some years ago we published the paper where we compared a Roundup-tolerant GM maize/corn with its equivalent non-GM, non-genetically modified (plant). And we found major compositional changes in terms of the protein and other small molecule biochemicals within the plant. In other words, the genetic engineering procedure had markedly altered the composition of this corn. This is where the dangers come and the point is that those who develop GM crops fail to acknowledge these unintended outcomes. And the regulators also fail to conduct a good enough analysis.
Patrick Holden: But defenders of genetically modified crops, glyphosate-tolerant crops, would say these crops have been grown now for what… a couple of decades and more, and where's the evidence of harm? Because you're saying that it's messing up the structure and there may be unexpected impacts but, you know, people would say, “Well, they're out there. We’re eating them, animals are eating them. What's the problem?”
Michael Antoniou: Well, before I go on, we should say that the cultivation of Roundup-tolerant crops has had a devastating effect on the environment. Because Roundup is a nonspecific weedkiller which has actually decimated the environment of plants that wildlife would normally, for example, be feeding on. These Roundup-tolerant food crops have multiple sources of potential harm, where health harm can result. Firstly, there is the residues from the pesticide, the Roundup, that's there. And again, my lab is one of the leading groups in the world, and I don't mean that in a boastful way. I just say, we are one of the pioneers and one of the leaders in investigating glyphosate and Roundup toxicity, and we've seen some very worrying outcomes from our studies. The point is that the biochemistry of the food plant has been altered in unintended ways. And there have been many, not just one, but many well-conducted, laboratory animal feeding studies which have consistently shown negative health outcomes from the consumption of GM food, whether it be soy, whether it be corn, or other things. And this includes impacts on the liver function and kidney function are two organs that are particularly negatively impacted but also digestive system disturbances and immune system disturbances as well.
So the worrying thing is, of course, is that, no human epidemiological studies have been conducted in regions of the world where most GM food is being consumed, like in North America, for example. No epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether there is a link between consumption of GM foods and health. So any claim by people that says, “Oh, people have been eating these foods for decades now and nothing untoward has happened”, that is a totally unscientific statement, because there is no evidence to back that because no studies have been investigating (that). But we can point to these numerous controlled laboratory animal feeding studies as an indicator that not all is well, and that we should be looking for adverse effects in (the) human population as well.
Patrick Holden: Well, you've already mentioned just now that you have considerable expertise not just in understanding the potential risks of the genetically modified crops themselves when fed to people or animals, but also about the impact of Roundup or other glyphosate-based herbicides, which of course are routinely sprayed onto these crops, and have been for the last 20 or 30 years, because they're a brilliant way from the farmer’s point of view of controlling weeds. Because when you spray them onto the crop, everything dies, except for the crop itself because it's tolerant to the herbicide. Let's now alight on the issue of Roundup or glyphosate-tolerant herbicides in general. First of all, to establish that they’re very widely used. I believe they're now the most widely used herbicide in the world and so much so that they are now in the drinking water, coming down in the rain, and, yes, residues are in many of the foods that we eat. So, I believe, if you agree with all that, what work have you been doing looking at the impact of Roundup on animals and people?
Michael Antoniou: Thank you, Patrick. Yes, I agree that everything you've said is accurate, in that glyphosate-based herbicides, such as Roundup, have been for a long time the most widely used pesticide in the world and it has become almost ubiquitous. And the main source of human exposure seems to be through foodstuffs. I should say that glyphosate/Roundup exposure is not just from the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate they’re being sprayed with these chemicals but also this incomprehensible habit, or whatever, … that farmers have adopted in more recent times, which is to use Roundup as what's known as a pre-harvest desiccant. This is within one or two weeks before the farmer plans to harvest the crop, they actually intentionally kill it by spraying it with Roundup and this apparently helps in drying the grain. And where it's used most is in cereals, such as oats and wheat and barley, but also legumes as well. And apparently this is done so that you get a uniform drying of the grain, which may be very convenient for the farmer because it allows them to harvest earlier than perhaps they (otherwise) would do.
Patrick Holden: As a farmer, if everything that you're combining is dry and dead, it means you can drive faster through the crop and it doesn't clog up (machinery) so much. You're absolutely right: glyphosate as a pre-harvest desiccant is widely used in this country, not just on genetically modified crops. And I can add to that, I can also tell you that it's now widely used to, as they say, “spray off” grassland before it is ploughed and reseeded. And also, this is even more shocking in my opinion, it's sometimes sprayed onto silage crops before they're cut and ensiled, which then dairy cows and beef cows would eat. And the reason the farmers do that is because if they spray it on the silage crop just before they cut it, then after they've cut it, the sward is dead, and then they can direct drill maybe some new grass seeds into that sward without having to plough. So there are lots of reasons why glyphosate has become the herbicide of choice – not just in the United Kingdom, but also throughout the US and the rest of the world, and not just with genetically modified crops.
Now, let's focus on whether there's any harm, because many thousands of farmers - and I hope that they'll be lots listening to this, because there's a whole min-till (minimum-tillage) revolution going on, which in the UK, I think, is largely dependent on the use of Roundup. Most farmers think that it is okay. So are you going to worry them that it's not okay? And if so, what's your evidence? Because we don't just want, you know, opinion here. We want evidence.
Michael Antoniou: Yeah, definitely. The point about, especially with the Roundup being used, just to come back to the point about Roundup, glyphosate-based herbicides, used as a drying – a desiccant – drying agent just before harvest. Because the harvest is happening so soon after the spraying, there has not been any time for dissipation of the Roundup and the glyphosate, which is why you find very – in surveys of foodstuffs in the United States that I'm aware of, for example, this may not mean much to the general public but over a milligram per kilogram of glyphosate has been found in oat cereals in the United States, for example. And I'm sure if we searched here in Europe we would probably find high residue levels in these kinds of cereals as well.
The worrying thing is, is that we have shown in research in my group and, of course, other groups around the world – glyphosate has literally become one of the most researched chemicals on earth at the moment – and we find multiple mechanisms of harm stemming from, especially the longer term. For me, because immediate harm, toxic effects and harm, glyphosate doesn't show those unless you take a massive amount, which you’re never going to do. But smaller amounts over a longer period of time is where the harm begins to manifest. So, in our first study laboratory rats were fed an incredibly low dose of Roundup – so low that it's massively lower than what regulators permit in Europe to be ingested on a daily basis. And what we found in these rats… Yes?
Patrick Holden: Just to intervene: how were they given that Roundup?
Michael Antoniou: Normally the Roundup is given via drinking water because you can control (it) rather than in the food. You can control the ingestion, the amount ingested, far more carefully via drinking water than you can through food. So in all, virtually all, the studies conducted not just by myself, but others has been (done by) administration via drinking water.
And even though the amount in this our first study, even though the amount of Roundup ingested, and this was a typical European Union Roundup, as would be used in the UK as well, we found that after two years the animals show clear signs of liver damage, a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to necrosis and liver cancer as well.
In our most recent publications on Roundup and glyphosate we have found clear evidence, building on past study, that it causes what we call oxidative stress. It causes disruption in the gut environment and I can elaborate why that is so important these days – gut health is so important to general health. We found major disturbances in the gut of the rats fed the Roundup and the glyphosate. But also we found again major disturbances in their blood biochemistry and their liver biochemistry and the kidney biochemistry as well. All suggestive of oxidative stress.
Now, what is oxidative stress? Oxidative stress is a type of oxygen-type/oxygen-based substances that are highly damaging. They will literally attack and damage anything that they come across. So they're not a good thing. And one other thing that oxidative stress is known to cause is DNA damage. DNA damage, of course, is not good because if you damage DNA and gene function, it can lead to cancer.
Quite a high percentage of what’s drunk, of what's taken in through the drinking water, will be absorbed into the body of the animal, as it would with a human. If we were to analyze human urine, for example, in areas of the world, like the United States, where glyphosate is used so – almost – ubiquitously. Almost 100% of people in the United States that have been surveyed have glyphosate residues in their urine. And that's coming from the food and drink that they're consuming. And it’s the same in the laboratory animals. It's coming/entering the body through the drink. But, of course, there’s an immediate effect in the gut where the all-important gut bacterial population…
Hardly a day goes by now when you don't read an article in the media about how important the gut health is for our general well being. This is because our gut is inhabited by many thousands of different types of bacteria and these bacteria not only help us digest our food, but they also produce chemicals that enter the body that help regulate certain crucial bodily functions such as nervous system function. So the gut communicates with the brain, but also it produces, the gut produces substances that modulate our immune system function. Therefore, if the gut imbalance, imbalance of gut function, imbalance in what is known as the gut microbiome is now being linked to just about any/every serious chronic disease you can mention, including cancer.
Patrick Holden: I hope there will be farmers listening to this podcast. And you will probably know Michael that there is a huge interest in regenerative agriculture out there in the UK and throughout the world, which is brilliant. And there's also an interest in min-till and no-till systems of food production which involve minimal disturbance of the soil and the avoidance of ploughing. But those same farmers will tell you that these systems work best if you have an effective herbicide. And there is virtually an umbilical dependence on the use of glyphosate certainly, or Roundup, certainly in the wetter areas of the United Kingdom. So this conversation becomes rather important because a lot of farmers would say, well, they can’t do min-till without Roundup.
Michael Antoniou: Again, I take your points. I've heard these points before. I'm obviously not a farmer. So I cannot provide the answers as to how you can do no-till effectively without using a broad-spectrum herbicide such as glyphosate. All I can point to is that these herbicides, including glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup, are nowhere near as safe as we once perhaps thought they were; and we need to think twice; and that farming practices will have to adapt to … the health implications of this latest evidence; and farming systems have to change to a more agroecological-regenerative system. That clearly is the way forward. That will be better for the farmers, the environment and the consumer.
Patrick Holden: One last point on Roundup and glyphosate. Is there any evidence that the residues of Roundup in the soil cause harm to… let's call it loosely the soil microbiome.
Michael Antoniou: This is a very good point and it's an unexplored area. Based on our findings that glyphosate and Roundup - it'll be Roundup, of course, that ends up in the soil, the whole formulation rather than just glyphosate alone… we know that they will inhibit … as we’ve shown in the gut. We showed that the gut bacteria that have the pathway is very efficiently blocked by glyphosate and Roundup. The same we can expect to happen in soil bacteria. If that was to happen, no doubt many, many types of very valuable soil bacteria in the soil microbiome will be inhibited in their function and that will cause negative impacts on how well the crop will thrive and develop, because we know that there is this relationship between soil health, which includes the soil bacteria, and plant health and performance. If you disturb the soil microbiome – in this case, through the action of the Roundup, then you are not going to get the best out of your crop. There's no doubt about that.
Patrick Holden: Okay. Well, I think we better draw this to a conclusion because we've had an intensive in-depth exploration of the impact of genetic modification, and gene editing on plants and animals, and potentially including human beings. So now let's just think about the impact, as we are today… Okay, you want to say one more thing.
Michael Antoniou: I want to say one more thing, Patrick, because I talked about the for me the inevitable failure just of gene editing in an agricultural context to give any long-lasting anything that will be of value. The worry for me again, as a health scientist, is that gene editing will inevitably again change the general biochemical functioning of the crop. Gene editing will also alter the biochemistry of the crop in unintended ways because… it's not just altering one gene but the functioning of multiple genes unintentionally. And remember when you alter the pattern, the global overall pattern of gene function, you alter the biochemistry and within that altered biochemistry you have the risk of new toxins and allergens being produced. And this is not being acknowledged. It is simply said, “No, no, nothing is (happening)”. Without providing evidence, this is not being acknowledged and this is very, very worrying for the consumer.
Patrick Holden: Okay, so we live in an interconnected world of ecosystems and organisms and genes, and nothing is separate – everything is connected. And yet, even the House of Lords now, who normally stop things, have let the genie out of the bottle. So we're living in a world, in the United Kingdom at any rate, where gene editing and quite possibly later (older methods of) genetic engineering is going to be loosed upon the world, and the agricultural world in particular. Let us imagine there are several categories of human beings listening to this podcast who are worried by what you’ve said. Let's start with the farmers. What can we do to avoid using these gene-edited crops? Presumably, we can say to the seed companies, the Cotswolds Seeds or the Western Seeds – I've mentioned those two, that really we don't want to buy any gene-edited crops. And maybe they'll respond accordingly, but I think that's the beginning, isn't it? Because whether we're animal farmers or crop farmers or both, in the end it's our decisions that will determine whether these technologies get widely introduced into the UK agricultural environment.
Michael Antoniou: I think it is a matter of farmers making their wishes known to the seed producers. I should say, at the moment the government’s statutory instrument, which passed the House of Lords, has basically made it very easy for developers of gene-edited crops to conduct field trials without any surveillance whatsoever. So it's still an instrument that only covers research and development of crops rather than their commercialization.
Patrick Holden: So far we're still safe from their commercialization.
Michael Antoniou: Correct.
Patrick Holden: That’s, for me, a bit of a relief. Let's now switch to food companies and retailers, who also will need to make choices on behalf of their customers as to whether they say to these seed companies or these researchers, “Look, see if you can produce a crop with higher yields or more vitamins – something or other, whatever it is – and we'll buy it”. They can't yet do that, can they? They can't yet buy these gene-edited crops or genetically modified crops – except, of course, through animal feeds that are fed to the livestock. What would their reaction be?
Michael Antoniou: Again it depends. For the major retailers, the supermarkets in particular, as we know, all the major supermarkets here in the UK for 20-30 years now have excluded GM, you know, genetically engineered ingredients, from their own brand products. And many of the major food manufacturers in Europe have done likewise, whether it's Unilever… Now, if they want to remain true to that policy of excluding genetically engineered ingredients in their products, they also have to exclude gene-edited products, because gene-edited products unquestionably are genetically modified products, genetically engineered products.
Now, however, the move that the government is making is to try as part of its deregulation of genetic engineering in agriculture is to exclude gene editing from the definition of a genetically engineered or genetically modified product. So, in other words, here is this gene-edited oats, which have only had one or two genes tweaked and nothing added externally, and by the new legal definition they are non-GM.
Patrick Holden: So that means I could be offered these gene-edited oats quite soon.
Michael Antoniou: No, no you won't be offered them soon. But I'm saying down the line as the law… what we're perceiving is that the steps the government is making, and has made its intentions very clear – that gradually it's going to be deregulating all forms of genetic engineering in an agricultural context.
But specifically with gene editing, the worry is that it will exclude from the GM definition certain types of gene editing so that, legally speaking, certain food crops, which have been gene edited, will not be classified as GM and can be sold as non-GM. And a farmer and a supermarket could be selling them inadvertently thinking, “Oh, it's non-GM”. But you would be dishonest. You may be legally on solid ground by saying, “Oh, this gene-edited food is non-GM”, but scientifically you will be completely dishonest because gene editing is unquestionably a genetic modification process that gives rise to genetically modified organisms.
Patrick Holden: Okay, so based on what you’ve just said, there's a decision down the line for both food companies and retailers, who need to say to the public at large, and their customers specifically, “We do not intend to buy gene-edited raw materials for our multiple ingredient products.” So that's the beginning of a public discussion. We'll have to watch this space. And obviously I'm interested in holding discussions with retailers and food companies along those lines.
Let's end with us as individual citizens. We all eat. We all buy food. I can't imagine that anyone listening to this would not be concerned – although, even if they have different views from those you've expressed. But if we do have concerns and we want to avoid knowingly consuming genetically modified organisms, Roundup or Roundup residues in our food, and in the future gene-edited crops, what can we do?
Michael Antoniou: For me, at least at the moment, and I hope this doesn't change that the, at least the organic regenerative agriculture sector is standing firm on excluding GM seeds/foods from that sector. And I hope that they will also stand firm against gene-edited products down the line. I know there's a lot of debate within the organic sector internationally and there is some differences of opinion, but I think if the organic sector is true to its principles, it will be also be excluding gene editing from its sector, as as it has with the old-style genetically engineered transgenic crops as well. And that being the case. Again, just as in the past by eating it, by sourcing as much food as we can afford and have access to organically was the surest way of avoiding not only genetically engineered but also foods that are not going to have residues of Roundup or other pesticides as well.
Patrick Holden: Yes, I was just going to say, I suppose exactly the same thing applies to Roundup, that the only safe space, as it were, on the supermarket shelves at the moment for products which are unlikely to have Roundup residues is those that are sold as organic and certified organic?
Michael Antoniou: Yes, that that would be true. There may be some, of course, because as we know unfortunately organic farms are surrounded by non-organic farms, and there is pesticide drift. So you do occasionally find pesticide residues in organic food, but they’re invariably a tiny fraction – it’s occasional and a tiny fraction of what you find in conventionally grown food. So they are the safest bet.
Patrick Holden: In case we're able to squeeze it in. Just perhaps as a footnote. You haven't given up your work on gene therapy, have you – the clinical use of these technologies in treating people who have illnesses/disorders which require such treatment? Where would you say – now this is a Moral Maze question – where would you say the boundary lies between the use of gene therapy, for instance, involving some of these technologies with people who are sick, and consuming gene-edited or genetically modified foods if you're not sick.
Michael Antoniou: Well, this is an incredibly important point, Patrick. The use of genetic engineering technologies in a clinical context is highly regulated and carefully monitored and is very targeted. You know the person that has the genetic disease, the condition, before you treat them. And also, if we're using genetically engineered viruses to deliver the therapeutic gene, these organisms are crippled not to reproduce and spread not just within the body, but also from person to person. So things are highly contained and controlled within a clinical applications context.
The same technologies, types of technologies, in an agricultural context, we have here completely the opposite where organisms are engineered carrying unintentional genetic damage are released into the environment. Things are not monitored. And things can spread in the environment and cause harm in the environment. And also the evaluation of their risks are inadequate and can cause harm in the consumer as well. For me, it's a staggering contrast of how two technologies – almost identical technologies – can be regulated so startlingly differently, even though both pose the same risks in both contexts.
Definitely, I'm continuing. I have a research programme for using genetic technologies for gene therapy applications. I have industrial collaborations for using genetic engineering for the industrial production of therapeutics as well. So there it is wisely applied. You know, I think there is a wisdom in a clinical context which is lacking in an agricultural context.
Patrick Holden: Well, you’ve shed a lot of light on a very important technological field, which can be rather inaccessible because of the complexity of what's involved. Michael, I'm so glad you're doing the work you're doing. I'm really happy that we've had this conversation in this podcast because I think it's vitally important at this present moment that people are as well as possible informed about the technologies that are developing and their risks and benefits for society as a whole. So, thank you so much for joining me.
Michael Antoniou: You're very welcome Patrick. It's been a pleasure and I hope that the listeners it stimulates them to think and take whatever action they feel is necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Patrick Holden: Thank you. Well, I think, what above all what's important to me is the transparency of these conversations. We need to discuss these things openly absolutely. Do we carry personal prejudices? Of course we do, but that doesn't mean to say we can't hold those prejudices but at the same time be open to honest science. And I think that's what you epitomize, Michael. So thank you for your good work.
Michael Antoniou: Thank you very much for your kind words, Patrick, and very best wishes to you and the others at the SFT and the listeners.
Outro: Thanks for listening. If you'd like to find out more about the work of the Sustainable Food Trust, you can visit our website sustainablefoodtrust.org. We look forward to welcoming you next time.
* GMW note: Based on data that the government published, academic and public sector bodies made up only around 1% of the respondents to the consultation. Given this, according to a report by A Bigger Conversation, DEFRA has been misleading in its representation of the consultation by spinning it to say that the majority of public sector and academic bodies are more in favour of deregulation. A Bigger Conversation notes that no group, including the public sector academic bodies, was completely for deregulation. See their report here.