20. juni 2019

GMO and ethics in a new era

In this statement, the Danish Council on Ethics calls for a renewed debate on genetically modified plants. A majority of 15 out of 16 members finds that it would be ethically problematic to reject GMOs with beneficial traits provided they are not assessed as posing a higher risk to humans or the environment than similar varieties developed by conventional methods. The Council further recommends a change of the EU’s authorization system for GMOs and other plants with new traits.

Several things have changed since GM plants were introduced in Europe more than 30 years ago. We now have new knowledge of risks, the CRISPR technology was developed in 2012 and several global crisis have become more pressing as indicated by the UN global goals. Many of the arguments levelled against GMOs are not relevant to several of the new varieties that are being developed these years.

A changing climate creates an urgent need for new plant varieties

The Council points at climate change and the resulting more extreme weather conditions as an example of an area in which GMO could contribute positively to alleviating pressing problems. The more prevalent extreme weather events caused by global warming creates a need to rapidly develop plants, which are capable of adapting to these more frequent incidents.

An example is the research in so-called de novo domestication developed by means of the CRISPR technology. It departs from the fact that many of the traits required to achieve the above-mentioned goals are already present in the plants’ wild relatives. Research published in the autumn of 2018 has shown that wild tomatoes can be de novo domesticated by introducing only six mutations, adding no genes from other species. The wild tomato now produced larger and more resilient fruits while retaining desired traits such as resilience to drought as well as to pests, a high content of lycopene and tolerance to salt.

Such changes are very close to the mutations that occur spontaneously in nature, and could, in principle, have been achieved by means of traditional mutagenesis techniques. Such examples refute the arguments that genetically modified plants in any form are more unnatural or more risky than plants developed by traditional means. Therefore such plants should not be subjected to risk assessment requirements that are not imposed on similar new varieties developed by conventional means.

The Council concludes that Denmark should work towards changing the authorization procedures to a product-based system (looking at the organism's traits and risks regardless of creation method), thus moving away from a process-based system (looking at the method or technology used to modify the plant). Thus, it should be the end-product – a combination of trait, plant species and breeding area – which determine if a new variety should be subjected to a risk assessment process or if it can be introduced upon an administrative assessment.

One Council member considers it fundamentally problematic from an ethical standpoint to apply genetic manipulation to change nature and to change plants. This member therefore does not recommend a revision of the authorization procedures for GMO.

Read the statement on GMO and ethics in a new era (PDF)