Alongside more than 75 European research institutions, the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) has signed a position paper, the objective of which is to change the attitudes of European decision-makers towards the use of genome editing methods.
Genome editing is based on deep understanding of the genetic code: we are all different because there are slight differences in our genetic codes that determine how our characteristics are expressed at an individual level. Genome editing deals with accurately targeted changes in the genomes of living organisms. Therefore, it differs from genetic modification where new genes or DNA sequences are inserted in an organism, usually from other species.
GM technologies interfere with the “natural” genetic material of living organisms to produce organisms that could not have been born naturally, which has been a significant reason for general resistance towards GM organisms or products. In practice, however, GM products are not considered to involve any higher risks than products produced by other methods.
The risk assessment required for GM varieties is very time-consuming (and expensive), which is why they are mostly developed by large multinational companies. If genome editing is considered to be similar to GM, it is likely that resources are not allocated to local breeding projects by editing or to basic research on editing or studies enabled by editing.
Genome editing is both faster and cheaper than conventional breeding and gene transfers.
In the US, genome editing is regarded as conventional plant breeding, in which the chemical production of mutations has for long been used as a breeding method. Plant varieties with edited characteristics are already being tested in field conditions in the US.
Genome editing is both faster and cheaper than conventional breeding and gene transfers. Therefore, it is also available to smaller breeding enterprises. It enables the breeding of tailored varieties with desired traits for smaller markets, by using species or varities already suitable for the local conditions.
Genome editing can be used to respond, more quickly than by any currently used breeding methods, to challenges in food production resulting from climate change. For example, editing can be used to improve the resistance to diseases, pests or extreme conditions, such as heat and draught, both in plants and animals. By means of editing, a new trait can be directly added to a variety or breed, already selected for high performance , without mixing the other traits, as would be the case if a new trait was added by crossbreeding from a distant relative.
Another ethical question is can we afford not to use a breeding method or technology due to suspicion raised by the use of a specific technology.
Genetic technologies and breeding, in general, are associated with ethical questions. Do we have the right to decide on what kinds of animals and plants are born? Another ethical question is can we afford not to use a breeding method or technology due to suspicion raised by the technology itself, if it helps to achieve beneficial goals (without harmful side-effects), such as to secure food production for a growing population in changing conditions.
So far, no strong opinions against genome editing have been presented in Finland, and it is not clear how consumers would react to food or feed produced by means of genome editing. Considering people’s opinions, it would be important, right now, to clearly point out the threats and opportunities associated with different breeding methods, both in Finland and in Europe, and to raise public fact-based debate about their goals, opportunities and risks.
GMO (genetically modified organism) = an organism produced by means of genetic modification or gene transfers.
Genetic scissors = a name for an editing method (e.g. CRISPR-Cas9) with which parts of the genetic code can be removed from or changed in a specific part of DNA.
Guide RNA = an RNA molecule which corresponds with the modified part and guides genetic scissors to the correct place.