UK government and EU lobbyists are misleading policymakers, regulators, and the public. Report by Claire Robinson
A group of 56 international scientists and policy experts have published a statement opposing the use of the term “precision breeding” to describe gene or genome editing, on the grounds that it is “technically and scientifically inaccurate and therefore misleads Parliament, regulators, and the public”. [UPDATE 22 Sept: There are now 86 signatories.]
The move comes at a time when the UK government is planning to remove regulatory controls around (“deregulate”) gene-editing technology in food and farming. It has published a draft bill, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which is currently working its way through the Houses of Parliament. The bill creates a new subclass of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), calling them “precision bred organisms” or PBOs and claiming that they could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding.
The term “precision breeding”, in addition to being used in the title and text of the UK draft bill, is also increasingly used in the EU by those who want to see gene-edited crops, foods, and animals deregulated.
Term “precision breeding” violates international standards
In a press announcement accompanying the launch of the statement, London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou, who coordinated its production, said that the scientists’ and policy experts’ position that the use of term “precision breeding” to describe gene editing is inappropriate and misleading is supported by the recently published “Genome Editing Vocabulary” by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO document provides an internationally agreed-upon list of terms that will “improve confidence in and clarity of scientific communication, data reporting and data interpretation in the genome editing field”.
Dr Antoniou said, “The terms ‘precision breeding’ and ‘precision bred organisms’, both used by the UK government and its agencies, are nowhere to be found in the ISO document. It confines itself to factual scientific descriptive terms and avoids subjective marketing slogans. In the interests of clarity, the UK government’s new and far-reaching legislation should do the same.”
Gene editing is neither precise, nor breeding
Explaining why the term “precision breeding” is misleading, Dr Antoniou said, “Gene editing is not precise; nor is it breeding in any recognisable sense, being an artificial genetic modification procedure conducted on cells grown in dishes in the laboratory.”
Dr Antoniou continued, “The aim of the [UK] bill’s title, and the wider use of the term ‘precision breeding’, would appear to be to give gene editing the appearance of controllability, predictability, familiarity, and therefore safety, implying that biosafety controls can be loosened or abolished. The signatories to the statement consider this a dangerous development and express strong disagreement with this use of the term.
“Their concerns are based on the recognition that gene editing is an entirely lab-based process and in addition to creating the intended changes in the edited plants or animals, it inevitably causes unintended DNA damage, which could result in risks to the health of consumers, the environment and, in the case of gene-edited animals, welfare problems for the animals themselves.
“Numerous types of widespread unintended DNA damage arising from the gene editing process are well documented in the scientific literature. They provide strong evidence that supports the application of robust regulations to gene-edited plants and animals. As a result, regulations should include a requirement for thorough risk assessments for human and animal health and the environment, as well as full traceability and clear on-package GMO labelling of the end products.”
UK government must stop misleading the public
GMWatch believes that if the UK government is serious about wanting to be seen to base its policy on science, it must take on board the scientists’ and policy experts’ views. As a first step, it must cease using the marketing slogan “precision breeding” and replace it with the technically correct terms, “genome editing” or “gene editing”. GMWatch will write to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to ask him to act to remove the term “precision breeding” from the title of the bill.
The scientists' and policy experts' statement:
The press announcement:
Further qualified signatories (scientists and policy experts) to the statement are invited to apply at this link: https://forms.gle/17VAFQvav6Avsi1B6